How Daniel Henney Deals With Panic Attacks and the Pressure to Drink“As this guy's guy who grew up in the Midwest, it's like, ‘What's happening to me?’”
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Growing up in a small Midwest town, Daniel Henney didn’t hear too much about mental health or feelings. So you could imagine his surprise when he found himself dealing with panic attacks after being cast in a popular South Korean drama called My Lovely Sam Soon.
But through the years, Henney has found what works for him and is proud to say he’s overcome a few mental health challenges by getting honest with himself. “I think it's important to listen to yourself and not be scared,” he tells Wondermind. “I've seen people go down a rabbit hole of getting down on themselves about their mental health, and you gotta give yourself a break. Life can get really tricky, and there's not always a ton of answers out there. So take a deep breath, take a walk, and get back to baseline.”
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WM: What’s invigorating you lately?
Daniel Henney: I think the reason I come up to northern Michigan is because, as we get older, sometimes we distance ourselves from who we were when we were kids. I realize now that coming back here keeps that little kid's heartbeat beating inside of me. It's like coming home. It's the smell of the water and the air. I take a lot of long walks by myself and talk to myself, and all these things help to sort of recharge me. I'm a very physical person, so when it comes to my mental state, if something's off, I can usually rectify that by doing something with my body, getting outside, moving, or speaking through whatever issues I have.
WM: Are there any aspects of your kid self that you might’ve lost but hope to tap into again?
DH: I think we all want to find that freedom again, that lack of self-judgment, that unabashed confidence that you have when you're a kid. For me, I was a basketball player growing up. I was into sports a lot. I think that was sort of my ticket to get out. I'm from a very small town—less than a thousand people and, like, six churches, four gas stations, and Amish hitching posts at the supermarkets. Not a lot of Asians. So through sport and competition, I think I was able to help myself get out. But as I've gone down this road in my life, I realized I needed to find something to reignite that competition in me, which really helps me ground myself.
So when I'm in Prague for my show, for example, it’s a European city, and it couldn’t be more European. But I'll go out once a week just by myself as a weird 43-year-old man with a basketball and just go play pickup ball with kids. And that really helps me. 'Cause I'll go home, and I'll smell my hands from the leather. That smell, that sweat helps me to feel normal. In this job, you're always away from your family. You're always away from your friends. You're by yourself a lot. So those little things have helped me stay anchored, I think.
WM: How else do you care for your mental health on a regular basis?
DH: I meditate, and I think my meditation takes a different form than a lot of people. I try to start my mornings with a long walk that’s at least a half hour. Even before I have caffeine, I try to walk first and get myself right, and I'll talk myself through what's on my mind, what's bothering me. I probably look crazy, but I don't really care. I'll talk myself through how I'm feeling, and usually by the time I get to my first cup of coffee or whatever, I'll feel pretty good. That will take place before anything else in my day.
Especially when I'm overseas, a lot of my days consist of being surrounded by a lot of people, a lot of intensity, a lot of demands. And alone time is really, really important for me—in the mornings especially. So those are sort of sacred moments.
At nighttime, I listen to a lot of reflective music, and if I'm missing home, I'll throw on a playlist of songs that remind me of home. I have playlists that remind me of South Korea. I have playlists that remind me of Europe and a little bit of everything. I grew up an only child, so I feel like I can generally figure it out myself. But there's also therapy there as well and other tools that help.
WM: What’s something you’re proud of when it comes to your mental health journey?
DH: When I was 25, I moved to South Korea, and I ended up getting a role on this cheesy Korean soap opera [called My Lovely Sam Soon]. It became very popular, and it was probably the size of a Seinfeld or a Friends in the States. My life changed overnight. It was everywhere. I was really excited in the beginning, and then you realize that your life's never gonna be the same again. And I started dealing with some pretty heavy panic attacks. I remember going to the hospital once. I had some moments like that.
As this guy's guy who grew up in the Midwest, it's like, What's happening to me? I didn't think panic attacks were real, you know. And here I am, hyperventilating on my couch. I'm like, Oh, something's happening [laughs].
But the fame wasn't going away. The career wasn't going away. So I was in a place where I'm gonna have to deal with this, and I don't want to drink it away or do something stupid. So I just kind of faced it head-on. I sought out some therapy in South Korea and talked to some people, which was very helpful so I didn't feel like I was going nuts and understood that it was a real thing, that it was OK.
The end of this is that I was able to get through it. When they come on [very rarely] now, I sort of know how to redirect. It's weird with that stuff. … It can be like, on an airplane, all of a sudden you're starting to freak out a little bit. Or it's backstage when the stakes are high. Here it comes, here it comes. You can feel it coming. Like, please don't let it get to where I know it can get to. Let's nip this in the bud.
So I'll do a thing where I just trace the lines in my hand, and that helps ground me. I'll stare at the palm in my hand, especially on flights, because it doesn’t help if I look up and I'm getting claustrophobic or something and the panic is starting to come. You're just in a tube over the Pacific Ocean, so the hand helps.
WM: What aspect of your mental health would you describe as a work in progress?
DH: I’ll be super honest. I've dealt with some alcohol issues over the last 20 years. It runs in my family. I think it evolves too as you get older. It can be very sneaky at times how it presents and how it doesn't present. So that's something I still have to be careful with because I can get to a point where I'm dealing with some heavier mental situations that I'll want to sort of medicate with a glass of wine or a couple beers or something. I have to be very careful with that 'cause I can drink too much. I'm also very proud of that because I have it under control.
I'm not trying to talk badly about any culture, but a lot of South Koreans drink, and it's very accepted there. It's part of every wrap party, every dinner—everything is just wrapped in alcohol. It became a crutch for me as a young kid dealing with a lot of fame, being thousands of miles away from my loved ones. It was pretty comforting to know that you could have a couple glasses of wine and things didn't hurt as bad. But I quickly learned that was a slippery slope.
So I still deal with that. I'm not in any sort of program or anything, but I just make sure that I'm very careful. Like making sure I'm in a very good place before I indulge or anything. But I think it's a daily struggle. And I think it's tricky because people think maybe as you get older and get wiser, I guess, that you're able to deal with things more. But I think you constantly have to address it and be present with yourself. You're still that same person inside.
WM: What helps you say no when there might be peer pressure to drink?
DH: What helps for me is if the closest people around you at that function know you're probably not going to drink or it's something that's going to happen afterward when you're comfortable.
The trigger for me is the social situations. I’m from a small town, and I didn't grow up with my folks throwing massive parties or anything. I grew up in a cornfield. So to be in situations where I have to not only be there, but I have to sometimes lead conversations… I'm sometimes a lead actor on a show, so a lot of people wanna come up and say hi and take pictures and all that stuff. A couple glasses of wine really make things easier. But I tell you what: A couple glasses more, and it makes things really bad.
So just being honest [with yourself and people you trust]. I'll go into most things now and just have a cappuccino or a sparkling water so I'm physically holding a drink [because everyone wants to cheers], but I'm not actually drinking. [It helps to have] these little tricks that can just trick your brain. I'll take little timeouts to step outside, catch my breath, and go back in. Not drinking is also a really good excuse to leave early. It also helps if you have a wingman or someone with you who's not drinking too. I'm not sober, but those situations trigger me, so I'd much rather be at home and have a glass of wine after and then go to sleep.
WM: What mental health misconceptions or stigmas tend to bug you the most?
DH: What really bothers me is—especially where I'm from here in the Midwest—I think it's still hard for guys to really talk about mental health. I think it's embarrassing for them to bring it up. I know in my household, it wasn't ever talked about as a thing. Mental health was like, “How are you feeling?” If you’re having a bad day, it's just a bad day. It doesn't mean there's anything more deeply rooted. I think it's good that nowadays there are labels being put on situations and how you feel, whether it is depression or anxiety or ADHD or whatever condition you may be struggling with.
I just hate that people are hesitant to talk about it, especially young men. And a lot of people in my business, there's so much pressure on them. I've seen it happen many times with joining a big show or a big film. It's hard for them to really talk about how they're feeling and how scared they might be, the pressures they might feel. It's just gotta stop. I think it's important to just be open and vocal about that. I'm definitely seeing people speak more openly about it, which is nice, but I think we should all be very accepting.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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