‘Glee’ Star Amber Riley on Releasing Stress Through Music



For Amber Riley, music is more than just her job — it’s her therapy.

The singer and actor is sharing her experiences with stress in support of the American Heart Association’s initiative to raise awareness about the impact that stress can have on physical and mental health.

“It’s important that people understand that your mental health can affect your physical. Mental health can also affect your heart too,” she shares in a video interview with Variety. “My stress really started to manifest itself habitually with insomnia – not sleeping, overthinking, not getting enough rest. When I was younger, it definitely manifested itself with eating, which I didn’t know. I didn’t understand why I was getting up at two in the morning, sneaking downstairs to get chips. It was just comfort-eating and not really being conscious of it.” 

The actor shares that her relationship with chronic stress “definitely had its ebbs and flows,” but it wasn’t until her body was sounding the alarms that she took notice: “I get sluggish, a little bit slow and even heart palpitations or heart beating fast or feeling like that fight or flight kind of kicks in sometimes. That’s mainly how it manifests itself in my body. It’s very, very physical. Sometimes people don’t know depression or anxiety can be physical. They think it’s all just in your head.” 

Riley looks back at her childhood in Compton, Calif. with joy as she recalls fond times with her sisters and cousins, crediting her family as a “really great support system” and for helping her discover an artistic outlet. “The stage and theater for me, performing in general, was more of an escape,” she shares. “I definitely remember in my preteen age, or my teenage years, trying to figure out my place in life and what it is that I wanted to do very early on. That in itself can be stressful, but it was still more fun for me than I think it was stressful at that age.” 

Then things started to shift when she became aware of “other people’s opinions and comparison.” Her career took off in her early 20s when she booked the role of Mercedes Jones on the hit series “Glee.” 

“I had my very first panic attack on the very first day of filming. I just stepped up and froze,” she says of shooting the pilot in 2009. “It was a highly stressful situation because messing up your line means everybody has to start over again, so everybody in the room is depending on you. I only had one line so the stress and the pressure of just getting it right … The rest of the actors were all collectively kind of freaking out because we just weren’t expecting all eyes to be on us.” 

That was the beginning of a “whirlwind” experience for her. “I was finally moving into something that I dreamed about my whole entire life and I was really freaked out about it,” she says. “I didn’t know what I was walking into. I just really didn’t know. No one could have ever thought that ‘Glee’ was going to be the phenomenon that it was.” 

Riley was “not prepared in any way, shape or form” for what followed as the show continued for six seasons until 2015 – constant attention, online trolls and media frenzy. “[As an actor], people automatically feel like you want to be the center of attention, but not really,” she says. “I just really loved singing, acting and dancing. So it was a whole new life that I had to kind of get used to.” 

During her “Glee” fame, Riley says she did not have the tools to regulate her mental health. “Stress and anxiety was not something that you really talked about growing up, so there was no way for me to pinpoint it or try to manage it,” she says. “I just kind of powered through it. And, of course, if you don’t recognize it, it just kind of snowballs.” 

Lessons learned in Hollywood led to building her own tool kit to decrease panic attacks and anxiety attacks, including meditation and deep breathing, which she calls a “lifesaver.” Riley has also been committed to exercise, calling movement her medicine. “Working out has become not about losing weight, not about looking or transforming into someone else, but really loving on myself,” she says. “It’s all about me and what it is that I need for myself. It completely changed my mental health when I started doing it for the right reasons.” 

As her workload increases and her life gets busier, one constant remains. “Music has played such a huge role in my ability to reduce stress or deal with stress, because when words are not enough, there’s always music. Music is the only thing,” she says.  

Riley, who will be releasing new music in 2024, is thankful for her creative outlet. With performing, “You don’t have to apologize for being emotional. If you’re emotional with your words, people get uncomfortable. But we’re totally OK with hearing someone pour their heart out,” she says. “Now I know how much music can actually just regulate your body and your emotions, but I didn’t know that that’s how powerful music is. I didn’t know that that’s what it was doing for me.” 

Riley hopes that ongoing conversations about stress management inspire people to reflect and be open about their own experiences. “It is normal to deal with stress,” she states. “I still really struggle with that – asking people for help – but it is a lesson that I learned. If you don’t really tell anybody what your needs are, no one can really help you. Pain shared is pain divided. Asking someone – or even just telling someone, even if they can’t do anything about it  – helps.  

“It’s important for me to let everyone know that I go through the same stresses that everyone else does. If I can make it through it, they can make it through it too.” 

For more tips about managing stress for better health, visit heart.org/stress.


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