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Long read: How to care for your mental health as a creative

Being a creative, whether an artist, singer, DJ, designer, illustrator, actor, you name it, can be rewarding. It can be joyous and fulfilling and incredibly exciting. However, it can also be hard, anxiety inducing, stressful and unforgiving. Jojo Jones looks into how we can balance the ups and downs of a creative life, whilst looking out for our mental health and wellbeing, including tips and tricks from a mental health professional.

The catalyst for this article was the responses I was given when I posed the title of this piece to a panel at a prestigious music company- uncomfortable and unhelpful. My mission for this article was to answer my own question with the hope that it will help others who are struggling with similar issues. I attempt to grapple with potential disruptions to your wellbeing, like rejection, burnout, performance anxiety, social media, and comparison to others. I found that self-awareness, thinking and evaluating your experiences, as well as connecting your mind and body, are important to progressing in your creativity AND in caring for your mental health. Everything is interlinked.

Lifestyle factors

In my research, I spoke to an amazing psychologist named Marnie (Marnie Merrilees, CPsychol (in training), MBPsS, MSc, PGcert, BSc.Hons) who gave me tips, tricks & advice which I will be imparting throughout this piece. When I ask outright ‘how do you care for your mental health as a creative’, one of Marnie’s key responses was, are your lifestyle factors in balance? She is referring to things such as, have you had enough sleep, have you eaten, drunk enough water, is your alcohol consumption and caffeine intake under control etc. I want to start by mentioning this because I often think we converse about mental health as if it is this separate rain cloud floating above our heads, but really, the mind and body are so connected and affect each other constantly. So, remember, the first step can sometimes be to check in with your lifestyle factors. I found I was working myself into a panic because I couldn’t think of where to start writing with this piece, and then I remembered I hadn’t eaten lunch… it isn’t always as simple as this, but it’s nice to know that it can be! 

Rejection & setting goals

Rejection is such a common buzzword that it seems to have lost a lot of its weight, but still, when you put your heart and soul into something, and that something turns around and says ‘no’ it is only human to be hurt. But how do we overcome this hurt, and put ourselves out on the line to be rejected again? Marnie presented to me the idea of outcome goals, process, and performance goals as three different types of targets we could set for ourselves. A process goal refers to improving a technique or goal for example, practice DJing for one hour everyday. A performance goal is an achievement of a specific performance or objective, for example being booked at a specific venue or specific event. These both correlate to the Outcome or ‘Dream’ Goal, which could be playing a certain amount of DJ gigs a year, or earning enough from DJing to make it your full time job, for example.  An outcome goal may be getting booked at a particular venue, winning a competition, or being successful in a job interview; all things that involve external factors. However, performance goals are focused on internal factors. Marnie says that the secret is to have a mix of process, performance and outcome goals, so that you can always look at how you’ve done in a rounded and balanced way. I really love this way of looking at your creative output because it creates a differentiation between external factors and internal goals. Just because you did your best and achieved your process goals, doesn’t necessarily mean you will achieve your performance or outcome goals, because someone else may have excelled differently to you on the day, but that is okay because you have still achieved. Marnie puts it beautifully:

“It’s about controlling the controllables. So for example, as an athlete or performer, if you go for an audition or a certain gig… and you’re rejected because the competition was stronger than you, to take that personally is a total waste of energy. Who selected the other people selected them for particular reasons, which is not necessarily a negative reflection on you and your performance… Someone else’s selection process is not under your control. The things that are under your control are how you prepare, how you perform, and are your lifestyle factors under control.” Marnie Merrilees

Using techniques like this have overwhelming benefits. You are able to focus more on yourself, think less about others and, and start to create a ‘bubble of self belief’ as Marnie calls it, building mental toughness and resilience to protect your confidence from rejection. This is also a great method to employ against imposter syndrome as you can focus on achieving your own personal goals, which only you can set and fulfill, and so you are being validated by no-one but yourself. Reframe your thinking away from rejection as a failure, and focus on what you have achieved by even entering a place where you could be rejected. You put in the hours to prepare, you honed your craft, and achieved your performance goal, which is a win in itself.

Balance

Remembering the balance of your physical and mental health is even more vital when in the moments of pressure and adrenaline. Marnie, who works with athletes, calls the mental space in which you give your best performance, the ‘zone of optimal arousal’. In order to get into this zone, you can eliminate things that may give you anxiety or hold you back. Marnie tells me that this goes hand in hand with your performance orientated goals and focusing on yourself.

“You want to create and practice as best you can without an audience. Go to the venue, check the venue out, do a set in the venue. Be there, practice and record yourself….do a smaller gig to start with…then do a massive gig. Rather than throwing yourself into the deep end.”

Performance anxiety

Whatever your creative output might be, it is completely normal to feel anxious and scared before going into a space where you will be put on show or performing. Performance anxiety is truly alive and kicking, especially since we have been forced to spend the past year staying away from other humans. Marnie suggests that you practice your pitch, interview or performance to friends or family beforehand. You will then know what it will be like to have an audience in front of you, so that in the real event it won’t feel so scary. I spoke to a rising star DJ LEV about this and she told me that she used to feel sick before every DJ set, a very typical nervous reaction, but with time and doing more live sets, now when she gets behind the decks she feels completely at home. Similarly another up & coming DJ, Zofia, tells me that DJing is a release for her: the music does the talking for itself, so her performance itself is not the focus, but the music is. This is such a lovely way to think of a performance, remember that in some ways you are a vessel for your creative work, and your creativity will speak for itself. And if you have prepared as well as you can, kept your lifestyle factors in check, you will be in the best possible scenario to deliver on your creativity.

New normal 

The pandemic also threw our normal levels of socialising out the window, and it is okay to feel drained by networking or performing. Keep in the back of your mind your lifestyle factors, and acknowledge that if they are unbalanced, it may be difficult to be fully present. And this is okay. I know I have been in networking or social situations when I have forced myself to be there, but have felt unwell, tired or even (it happens to the best of us) hungover. I start to feel disappointed in myself that I don’t have the energy to engage in interesting conversations like I normally would, but remembering that because my lifestyle factors weren’t balanced, this could be why. Equally if you are stressed about a personal matter like an argument with a friend for example, this could also potentially impact your ability to socialise and network. Rather than beating yourself up about it, Marnie suggests after every performance or event, doing an evaluation. I really liked this method as it took me back to school days of thinking about three things that went well (What Went Well’s) and three things that could have been better (Even Better If’s). These may be as simple as: my preparation was good as I checked the venue out before, but my performance may have been even better if I had got an early night the day before the performance. Little things like this sharpen your self-awareness so you are more connected with your body and mind, and therefore your authentic creativity. 

Self-awareness

A big part of my conversation with Marnie for this piece was remembering that you are not just a ‘creative’ or ‘performer’, but you are a whole person. There may be external factors which make you wake up on the day of a big performance or event not feeling the most ideal way, but it is the acknowledgement of this that can help. And, even better, if you have a list of things that helped you give a good performance last time (What Went Well’s), you can fall back on these to create the ‘zone of optimal arousal’ for your performance. Marnie brings this again back to self-awareness telling me, ‘all of this is about developing self-awareness of what works best for you and what doesn’t work well for you because everyone’s an individual and it’s not one size fits all.’

Being a creative means we’re all acting as our own social media marketer and content creators too. Adding this normally full-time role to your plate can be a lot. Not only is creating content for social media to build your following a task, it also brings up issues of comparison and self doubt. I consulted a young singer songwriter Naómi, who told me that sometimes social media troubles her authenticity saying ‘I have to sort of bring myself to be really authentic at the center because you will know everybody will hear about it. And then it’s not like Instagram. Right? You can’t put up a picture and then say, ‘everything’s okay’, if you make a whole track about how it’s not.’ The normality is to show your best and most successful self on social media, not your struggles, which is often the basis for a lot of creative projects, especially music. When I asked Marnie about this she told me about the Iceberg effect; “An iceberg is two thirds underwater, but all people see is the top bit, which is success. What people don’t see is the two thirds underneath, the commitment, the dedication, the determination, the sacrifices, the sleepless nights, the constant rejection, the constant failures.”  This visually shows the disparity between what people put out on social media, and their creative output. Luckily it is becoming more normalised to discuss struggles on social media, but I have found they are nearly always in the context of how someone has got to their success, to the top of the iceberg. 

Blinkers On

Zofia and LEV also mention to me the struggle of comparison through social media, and how they found it hard to shout about themselves and their achievements online. Zofia particularly tells me that she would feel vain if she was to say or post about a DJ set that she thought had gone really well. This made me so sad to hear as I know they are both incredibly talented DJ’s, but it also made me think that we (women especially) are not used to being allowed, and encouraged, to acknowledge our achievements. Marnie suggests the idea of ‘mental toughness’ and again reminds me that focusing on yourself, your own goals and achievements would be a good way to tackle this. I believe this would also help with how you perceive yourself on social media; if you give less weight to perceiving others online, you will also give less weight to anxieties around how you are perceived online. After all, even the highest quality pixels on a screen can never give you the full story.

Say no to burnout!

Another issue that comes up around this topic, and in my own life, is the pressure we feel to be seen to be working all the time. This capitalism-fuelled mindset ‘is still sort of lingering in the industry’ as Naómi tells me, ‘and I feel like it’s maybe our generation who are starting to turn it around’. Indeed Naómi is right; exhaustion and burnout has had a buzz around it recently through platforms like TikTok, where young people are rebelling against the historical ‘glorification of burnout’. Naómi also tells me that ‘in the 2010’s nobody seemed to mention that you should take breaks… “People were flaunting it like ‘I’m not sleeping. I’m not taking breaks. I’m not doing anything but working.’ It was a badge of honor’”.

I can recall taking on over five extra-curricular responsibilities in school and thinking that, if I didn’t do all of them to the highest level, people in my life would not think I was working hard enough. But when you zoom out of this mindset, this is incredibly unsustainable. It took quite a few sessions with my own therapist for me to understand that working long days with no breaks can cause stress and fatigue, and that you may be able to achieve the same amount of work in a shorter time with stricter boundaries with rest and breaks. I used to think all breaks did was take time away from more work you could be doing, but in fact they increase the quality of your work so you can spend less time on it. In 2019, burnout was included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon and in the wider world, celebrities like Simone Biles are showing the world that prioritising wellbeing and looking after your mental health is vital. Although the difference between being an athlete and a creative might seem great, Marnie showed me that the self-awareness in your body that you need as a sportsperson is also entirely applicable to being a creative. Marnie  reflects on this saying, as a creative your work “comes from your soul. If you’re not connected to your soul, how are you going to put it across in your performance?  You have to be totally connected to who you are, know who you are for that to shine on the outside.” This is why your lifestyle factors will affect how you can create, because your body will be imbalanced. Additionally, why meditation, relaxation, deep breathing, will help performance anxiety and potentially help you tap into your creativity in an even stronger way – because you are connecting your body and mind together.

What next?

I have covered a lot of big topics throughout this article, and I really hope that this article leaves you wanting to ask more questions. And please do. If you feel comfortable, ask your fellow creatives, your classmates, your family members, how do they feel about rejection? Do they experience burnout? How do they prepare for a pressurised situation? Open up this conversation so that if you resonate with any of the issues raised here, you have someone to talk about it with. Linking mental wellbeing and ability to express creatively is freeing and invigorating, and looking after them both is like a reciprocal relationship that could have many love songs written about it.

If you are looking for more information or more serious help with your well being & mental health, or you liked Marnie’s recommendations, regular therapy might really help you. It can be extremely difficult to accept help, but reassure yourself that it will only serve you in the long run, and what you put in you will get back tenfold.

You can find private therapists through the directory https://www.bacp.co.uk/ or if you are under 18 you can access NHS funded counselling through CAMHS. https://camhs.elft.nhs.uk/

NHS Thrive app: 

  • An app with over 25 Cognitive Behavioural Therapy modules; CBT is one of the most effective resources and tools for anxiety. It helps us to understand the connection between our thoughts, emotions and behaviours. It suggests that our anxious or negative thoughts can shape how we interact and view ourselves, the world and others. From this, it teaches you different coping techniques that may be healthier than ones associated with anxiety. 

https://www.nhs.uk/apps-library/thrive

Other (free) mental health services available to the music industry include;

 Help musicians 

  • Help Musicians is an independent UK charity for professional musicians of all genres who help at times of crisis, but also at times of opportunity, giving people the extra support they need at a crucial stage that could make or break their career. https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/

Music Minds Matter

  • Another initiative by Help Musicians, if you are struggling to cope pls call 0808 802 8008, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

 Silence The Shame

  • https://silencetheshame.com/ exist to empower and educate communities on mental health and wellness and offer online mental health screening and resources.

Music Support

Founded in 2016, https://musicsupport.org/ provide help and support for those in or employed by the UK music industry. Call 0800 030 6789, Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm. 

Online services including crisis help for children & young people:

YoungMinds:

●   Provides free, 24/7 text support for young people across the UK experiencing a mental health crisis.

●   Youngminds.org.uk or text ‘YM’ to 85258

ChildLine:

●   Under 19s can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem.

●   Call 0800 11 11 or childline.co.uk

●   On their website, the child can make an account or ‘locker’ without providing an email address or real name so they can 1-1 counsellor chat online.

Anxiety UK:

●   support@anxietyuk.org.uk, text on 07537 416 905, call on 03444 775 774

Kooth:

●   Free, anonymous support for young people

●   https://www.kooth.com/

The Mix:

●   0808 808 4994

●   85258 (crisis messenger service, text THEMIX)

●   themix.org.uk

●   Support and advice for under 25s, including a helpline, crisis messenger service and webchat.

Papyrus UK:

●   Charity for the prevention of young suicide (under 35) in the UK

●   Call PAPYRUS HOPELINEUK on 0800 068 4141

 Off Centre

With thanks to…

Marnie Merrilees, CPsychol (in training), MBPsS, MSc, PGcert, BSc.Hons

Sport and Exercise Psychologist (training for ‘CPsychol’ chartered status with the BPS)

Facebook: Sport Psychology UK @MarnieMerrilees

Naómi: https://www.instagram.com/naomisoriginal/

Zofia Rogers aka DJ Zofia: https://www.instagram.com/zofia.rog/

ALev Omar aka DJ LEV: https://www.instagram.com/levdj_/

Words: Jojo Jones 

@jojo_j0nes  https://www.jojojones.uk/Listen to Jojo Jones on the first Wednesdays of the month 12-2pm on Voicesradio.co.uk

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