Mental health is not often discussed in the arts. Musicians, dancers, artists, photographers, and other creative fields have incredibly high-stress careers. Our livelihood is based on public approval, perception, and criticism. We spend countless hours practicing, perfecting, analyzing, improving, and examining our art. Our art is an extension of ourselves, and we expose our most vulnerable thoughts and emotions with family, friends, and complete strangers. By pursuing a career in the arts, you are unknowingly signing a contract which exposes you to a lifetime of criticism, rejection, and crippling self-doubt. Because creative fields are so competitive, you will receive ten rejections for every success (by my rough estimations). Also, balancing professional, personal, and social lives is a delicate algorithm.
So why don’t we talk more about mental health in the arts? We spend our lives discussing practice regimens, analyzing audition techniques, and studying other means of professional improvement. The bottom line: I don’t care how many hours you spend in the practice room, how many auditions you’ve taken, how many connections you have – if you are not in a good mental state, you are not the best artist you can be.
Here’s my personal artistic philosophy: If you lead a mostly happy and fulfilling life, it will translate into your art. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying there won’t be loss, pain, or other obstacles in your life. Music (or whatever creative field you are pursuing) is an extension of your life, your story, your voice. Use your experiences (good and bad) to create new and unique results. But by carrying unnecessary mental burdens, you’re creating a roadblock between your artistic vision and the actual result. Focusing on exams, relationships, to-do lists, and other stressors inhibits your artistic voice.
Here are some of my tips to improve your mental well-being:
Realize that you are your own worst critic. Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes. This is so much easier said than done, but realize that we are all humans (unless you’re a robot or other machine, then disregard the previous statement) and we will make mistakes.
Change your inner dialogue. I’m sure every one of us has thought “I suck/That was terrible/Why do I even try any more?” or some variation during some point of our lives. Not only are these toxic thoughts, but they aren’t very helpful either. The next time you make a mistake, instead of vaguely thinking “That was awful,” determine why you made the mistake, how to fix it, and how to avoid it in the future.
Realize that criticism isn’t personal. Critics, whether teachers, friends, colleagues, or complete strangers, are not attacking you personally. Hopefully, you receive constructive criticism which allows for improvement, but even if you don’t, realize that these statements are not personal jabs. If somebody didn’t like your tempo, repertoire, or interpretation, that doesn’t mean they don’t like you as a person. Seems obvious, but because artists identify so strongly with their art, sometimes even the most well-intentioned comment can feel like a personal attack. Learn to use criticism to improve your art.
Plan your practice routine. One of my biggest daily stressors is practicing. Not necessarily practicing itself, but fitting it into my schedule. Know what is most effective for you and your schedule. When possible, I like to practice as soon as I wake up so it’s not lingering at the back of my mind all day.
Experience the power of lists. Transfer mental clutter into lists. I keep to-do lists, bucket lists, repertoire lists, blog post lists, and a myriad of other lists on my phone. Whenever I have an idea or remember something I have to do, I immediately add it to the appropriate list. Transcribing my racing thoughts into organized and structured lists clears mental space to help me focus on my art.
Make some time for yourself every day. When life gets so busy that we go on autopilot from one rehearsal, concert, or event to the other, we lose our spark and creative drive. Even if it’s only a few minutes, make time for yourself every day. This time doesn’t have to serve any purpose except to help you reconnect with yourself. I like making my favorite Earl Grey tea, reading, or watching cat videos (stress-relieving in itself!).
Live in the moment. Most of our mental baggage is because we are focusing on the past or future. Focus on the present. Stopping to focus on one moment in time will help quiet the constant stream of thoughts going through your mind. Meditation and exercise are proven to reduce stress, but if these don’t work for you, try other techniques. Name something you are experiencing with each sense (I see, I hear, I feel, I smell, I taste). Take deep breaths. Strike a yoga pose. Focus on the present.
Don’t be so self-absorbed. Part of being an artist is being hyper-focused on yourself. Your public persona, your work, your goals…Take some time to focus on someone or something else. Volunteer. A few years ago, I was stressed and inundated with auditions and competitions. I started volunteering at a local animal shelter each weekend which had cats and dogs for adoption, and Saturdays soon became my favorite day of the week. For a few hours each week, I reveled in kitten therapy (I’m definitely a cat person) and helped find these animals their forever homes. Find something you’re passionate about and find out how you can help. (P.S. The serotonin boosts from doing good deeds is also a great stress-reliever. Try random acts of kindness and feel your mental level surge!)
Always have something to look forward to. The future shouldn’t always be a giant question mark of uncertainty and apprehension – plan something exciting to break up the drudgery. Plan to meet up with your friends at your favorite restaurant. Plan your next vacation (if you don’t have money or time now, even making a Pinterest board can be exhilirating). You can even plan the next show you want to watch on Netflix. Always have something to look forward to.
Have other hobbies. Our art is our life, so it’s easy to get caught up in one thing. Have other pastimes and interests so that you can escape your art from time to time. At a loss for ideas? Try a new sport, exercise class, seminar, book club, cooking class, seminar, or other hobby and find what you like best.
Get some sleep. So many people treat a good night’s sleep like a luxury, when it is a basic human element for survival. A lot of times bad mental states are due to fatigue. If you’re anything like me, you can find extra sleep time by refusing the call of social media right before bed (the phone/tablet screens aren’t great for your sleep cycle either!). Even 30 extra minutes a night can do wonders (especially if those 30 minutes are snooze-button free!).
Reevaluate your diet. Eat more fruits, vegetables, yadda yadda yadda. You know the drill. But seriously, your diet does affect your mental health, so make sure you’re giving it the best fuel for the best results.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. All of my tips are for general stress and mental well-being, but if you are experiencing more serious anxiety, stress, or even depression, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Confide in a trusted family member, friend, teacher, colleague, or anyone who can help. Resources and hotlines for mental health are just a Google search away. Know that you are not alone and there are trained professionals who can help.
I hope these tips help! What advice do you have for improve mental well-being? Leave a comment down below with any suggestions!