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scrolling through instagram this spring, actress Lauren Cohan unwittingly found herself competing as a contestant in The Comparison Game. You know the rules: Endlessly swipe through friends’ and followers’ successes, then measure your own professional wins and happiness against theirs. Now, if you’ve ever played, you probably know the harsh reality of this game—you can never win. It’s a realization Lauren learned the hard way. “I felt like I was not at the right level,” she admits. As she continued to check her feed, she began what she calls “spinning out,” where one negative thought led to another. Soon she was locked into a mindset that felt like “dark clouds in your head where you just literally cannot, at that moment, think of anything encouraging or positive or worthwhile about yourself or anything around you,” she says. She knew she needed to make a change. If she constantly focused on what others were doing and what her next move should be, she’d deprive herself of enjoying what was happening now. She had to start living in the moment.
So, the first step was to take a hiatus from social media. She erased all her previous posts and quit scrolling. “I needed a mental health break,” she says. “When I think of health, I think of my mind first. It was about getting away from that culture of comparison.” Sure, she was killing it professionally after returning to star on The Walking Dead’s eleventh and final season, currently airing on AMC, after leaving for a lead role on the short-lived ABC spy show Whiskey Cavalier. But this pessimistic thought process had been rearing its ugly head for years.
Impostor syndrome is what was at the heart of many of the feelings. “When you’re afforded certain opportunities that are beyond your wildest dreams, it can send you into massive self-doubt and to question whether you should be there,” she says. And the more she achieved, the more she worried about expectations. “I waited for so much approval,” she says. “I would want that feeling of satisfaction. I wasn’t feeling settled and complete.”
Lauren’s pause from social media was a key stop on her path to positive thinking, but then a close friend gave her a piece of advice that prompted even more emotional digging. “You’ll never be happy as long as you’re worrying about yourself,” she recalls her friend saying. To her, that meant “when I’m in a stressful state, it’s not because I actually need something,” Lauren says. “It’s because I’m letting my ego spin out of control. I worry about job security, losing something, not getting something I thought I was supposed to achieve. I just didn’t want that inner monologue anymore.”
Lauren’s still working to fully quiet that noise, but now, when she’s feeling anxious, she redirects. Or as she puts it: “I see where I can be useful somewhere else.” She’ll check in with friends or volunteer at the Atlanta Music Project, an after-school program where kids get help with homework and take music lessons. “When I’m not focused on my output, and I’m looking at the energy I can give on-set or in a social situation instead, I immediately feel so much relief,” she says. “I’m able to be present and see things the way they really are. It’s a relief to remember that you’re a speck, and that there is a big picture, and to get over yourself.”
But a healthier mindset is just one piece of the puzzle—taking care of her body is another big part. “I’m so much more available to everyone when I’m fit,” she says, adding that when she’s active, her stress level decreases and she’s easier on herself. Admittedly, though, she’s not the best self-starter when it comes to working out on her own. “I love exercising, but I make excuses every single day not to start,” she says. To motivate, she often recruits friends. Other times she tells herself, Just get on the bike. You don’t have to stay on it for long. She’s referring to her Peloton, through which she also takes barre, full-body strength, and stretch classes a few times a week when she doesn’t have multiple stunt days that require her to kick open doors, wield two prop rifles while picking up a costar who’s feigning a broken leg, or battle zombies for up to four and a half hours. “In between stunts or when I have emotional scenes, to keep connected to myself, I run up and down staircases, I run around the building, I do pushups in the corner, I do high knees, I do lunges,” she says. “It feels great. Every time I feel really strong, I say, Just be here, just stay in the zone.”
When she needs to kick her training up a notch, she schedules sessions with her longtime trainer, AJ Fisher. Rooted in a precision method she created called Corectology, Fisher’s workouts focus on balancing muscle function and boosting strength and flexibility. The technique is especially beneficial for Lauren, who suffers from achy hips and lower back pain from a herniated disc after being rear-ended twice and injuring her tailbone when she fell while waitressing back in her 20s. Through it, she learned to do muscle activations before starting cardio: deep exhalation ab exercises and engagements of the muscles on either side of the spine to “turn on the right muscle to walk,” says Lauren. Exercising is less painful because of these small movements, partly because she’s worked to rebuild the muscles around the base of her spine. To increase her strength, Lauren does planks and side planks for her upper body, and glute bridges while lifting 45 to 65 pounds with her pelvis, plus squats, sumo squats, lunges, and leg lifts using a TheraBand for her lower body. She’ll do a combination of all of these moves for up to 90 minutes.
To fuel those sweat sessions (and amp her brain power), Lauren eats a ton of veggies. Today, for instance, she kicked things off with cauliflower, carrots, hummus, two cups of coffee…and chocolate fudge brittle. “As a rule, I try not to have a rule,” she says, nodding to her nontraditional breakfast. But she does her best to stay away from foods that mess with her mood, like early-morning bagels. “Certain things make me tired, and if I get tired, then I’m cranky,” she says. Sometimes before meals she’ll do a mental check, asking herself, Will this give me the energy I want? For lunch she usually has a tomato-avocado-mayo-cheese sandwich, and to snack on at work, she brings a smoothie made of avocado, romaine, and mint. In the evening, she often eats spinach gomae, a Japanese-style salad. (Her boyfriend is Asian, and they eat a lot of Asian food together, says Lauren.)
One food group she avoids, though, is dairy. Lauren says she’s struggled with cystic acne her entire life, but over the past 12 months, she hasn’t had as many skin problems because she cut out things like yogurt and ice cream. Body brushing, facials, and massages are Lauren’s other self-care go-tos. “I love that relaxed dream state you get into during a massage,” she says. She also feels tranquil while practicing Vipassana meditation, which she started doing at age 17, a few years after she and her family moved from New Jersey to England, where her mom grew up.
Making room for that more productive thought cycle is a goal Lauren is truly achieving. In July, she returned to Insta. “I’ve been excited to go back,” she says. “My viewpoint has changed. It’s refreshing to be inspired, and it has the power to be uplifting.” And now back on TWD, Lauren is feeling optimistic and open-minded about her present and future. With only a handful of episodes left to air, the zombie chapter of her life is almost over. While future job opps are in motion, she says, “I felt a genuine, legitimate, let-go moment the other day where I thought, Maybe you don’t do anything. My brain wanting a plan was me not having enough faith in the unknown. But if your principles are rock solid, then the place you’re supposed to go is unmissable.” So with a revived outlook and a flourishing grasp on how to appreciate and savor every moment, Lauren is primed for whatever may come her way. Thrive on, girl.
Photographed by Ben Watts; Fashion Editor: Kristen Salidino; Hair: Bridget Brager at The Wall Group; Makeup: Jenna Kristina at The Wall Group; Prop styling: Cate Geiger; Production: Crawford Productions
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