It's no secret that being a musician, or indeed working as an artist in any creative field of goes hand in hand with depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles. Here we look at fourteen steps artists can take to keep their mental health in check.
Guest post by indie musician Dave Cavalier
Art is hard. If it was easy we wouldn’t love it this much.
For those of us who dared to decide that our dreams wouldn’t involve a corner office with a view or validation via promotion, we accepted the uphill battle before us. Most of us had some idea of what that would entail: a LOT of peanut butter and jelly dinners (…and breakfasts …and lunches), long hours for minimum to no pay, and no shortage of people who misunderstood not only our work but mostly our life choices. Amassing a boulder-sized snowball while traveling against the wind up a rocky mountain in flip-flops feels like an appropriate analogy. Sysaphus had it easy. As a recording artist and songwriter myself, I accepted these obstacles again & again when I graduated from Berklee College of Music. After moving to Los Angeles, I quit countless, reasonable, non-musical careers to go on tour for months at a time making little to no money in the process. What I completely underestimated was my mental health and the impact this journey would have on me as I concluded my 20’s. I watched the entire music industry evolve into something I didn’t recognize anymore, making it difficult to recognize myself within it.
Artists tend to think that struggle is good. It’s inspirational. Depression is an appealing muse, our heartbreak offering us deeper hues with which to paint, new words to help illuminate our battles. I felt that way too…for a while. I’m not sure when it really changed, but somewhere along the line I discovered my frustrations and hardships began to dim my light, muddle my message and distort the memories of my greatest victories. In my inexhaustible efforts to “get there,” I got so far off the map I had no idea where I even was anymore, let alone where to go next. I’m constantly reminded of the saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up someplace else.” That thought terrified me because at 31 years old, I had spent my entire life with one singular goal in mind. So, if this wasn’t it? FUCK.
Recently, I’ve had an epiphany, one that most hard working artists, bust through the wall hustlers, never say die fighters and tried and true lifers have a hard time accepting: I hit pause. I decided that, just for a little bit, that ticking time clock in the back of my head that followed me every moment of everyday saying “It needs to happen soon or else,” just needed to…stop. There are no great writers who are too distracted to write, no beautiful melodies for those who aren’t motivated to pick up a guitar and no amount of anxiety fueled inspiration that can cure that helpless feeling of not wanting to get out of bed in the morning. Before I could be honest with my fans or my collaborators, I had to be honest with myself. Thanks to “the chase,” I had become an emotionally lost mess & I decided that was not going to be my legacy. I hit pause and decided that instead of finding the right words or the right notes, I needed to find myself again first.
- Get Sleep
Ever notice when you feel your worst that you always seem to be tired? You don’t have the energy to go exercise, be social, accomplish your daily goals or even get out of bed? Getting plenty of sleep is a must for your mood. People with depression often have noticeable sleep disturbances, whether they sleep too much or not enough. Part of getting into a good routine can start with going to bed and waking up on a regular schedule.
- Develop A Routine
When things feel hardest, I’ve found it’s usually when life is the most out of my control. Introducing a routine into your day, whether it’s how you begin in the morning or how you accomplish tasks throughout the day, can help you feel like you’re dictating the terms of your life again. Developing routines makes implementing new habits easier as well. Acclaimed Haitian rapper, musician & actor, Wyclef Jean, makes time to work out and meditate everyday. Try starting with just a few things you do every morning and go from there.
- Do Art For Fun
When you choose art as a vocation, you sacrifice your ability to enjoy your art as a hobby…or do you? If you’re a rock musician, try playing with a country band or learning a classical instrument. By stepping out of your comfort zone artistically, you can free yourself of the internal critiques and stresses tied to attempting to monetize your art. You become free to just enjoy the process because you can create something just for you or your friends with no intention of selling it to the public. Not only will you feel better simply because your doing it to just have fun again, but you’ll expand your horizons and influences as well. If that doesn’t work, then maybe you should try this…
- Try Different Mediums To Express Your Emotions
Have you ever painted? Drawn with charcoal? Wrote a poem or short story? It could be as simple as a coloring book & crayons, but finding an artistic outlet that isn’t the primary focus of your professional endeavors is a great way to get those frustrations and emotions you have inside of you out & onto a canvas.
- Do Something For Somebody Else
Have you thought recently about the positive feelings you experienced that last time you did something for somebody else? When we are so consumed by our own unhappiness, we sometimes feel like we need to focus entirely on fixing our own problems before we can do anything else. Oddly enough, when you turn the focus away from yourself and onto helping others, you begin to feel valuable and needed in an incredibly fulfilling way. You could play songs for people in hospice, volunteer your time to teach lessons to kids or even help digitize CD’s to archive music for future generations. Do some research in your local area, there’s more ways to use your talents to help others than you probably think. Karma is real. Embrace it.
If you don’t feel like you want to conquer the world, you may also be experiencing low self-esteem, so finding ways to feel better about who you are is an essential element of being happy. You can practice positive thinking by reciting affirmations or posting positive quotes on your bathroom mirror. It may feel strange at first, but over time I guarantee you will feel a difference. The smallest things can make the biggest difference. Nowadays, you can even search YouTube for videos that teach you how to sew or even ways to distress your old jeans or shirts so they feel brand new again.
- Get Some Exercise
Ever get so mad you just wanted to break something? Maybe you even did break something. Save all that money you spend replacing plates and patching holes in the wall and hit a punching bag instead. Convert that emotional energy into something physical and beneficial. As you may already know, exercise naturally releases endorphins that trigger a positive feeling in the body. The more you exercise, the closer you may be to that beach body too, boosting your self-esteem. Even if it’s just a 30-minute walk or some push-ups when you wake up every morning, making time for your physical health will always improve your mental well being.
- Change Your Diet
You are what you eat, so try not to eat a lot of junk if you don’t want to feel like garbage. When you’re a struggling artist, I understand it’s hard to eat healthy when you’re broke. Learning to cook from home can save money and is fun! Some studies have shown that a higher daily intake of omega-3s, which you can get in fish like salmon, can improve mood. Most salmon dishes, for example, can be cooked with only a few ingredients and 15-20 minutes in the oven. A great diet can help more than your mood, helping you feel fit & more attractive, improving your much-needed self-esteem.
- Stay Involved/ Be Social
If you’re feeling defeated, you may want to withdraw socially and keep to yourself. Whether it’s low self-esteem or a lack of interest, you need to stay social and involved with your friends. These connections keep you afloat during hard times and offer you a valuable support system so you don’t spiral downward with negative thoughts. There are plenty of inexpensive ways, such as going on hikes or hosting/attending a game night, to stay social and distract yourself from unconstructive emotions.
- Rely On Family & Friends
Family & friends can encourage you and hold you accountable when you try to create new habits that’ll be beneficial to your overall health and happiness. Just like my reason for writing this article, you’re not the only one who feels the way you do. Reach out to other musicians and start your (much cooler of course) version of a support group. Relating to others who share your feelings and support you is the best way to combat the feeling of loneliness so often attached to depression.
Sometimes talking to family and friends just doesn’t cut it. People who are invested in your life emotionally can have emotional opinions or suggestions that may not best serve you in the end. That’s where therapy can be a really great outlet. Finding a trained professional you enjoy the company of, whom you trust and can be honest with but who doesn’t have any other agenda than your individual health and success can be a real game changer. It can also be a great solution if your family or social circles aren’t very large or reliable. Yes, some therapists can be expensive, but with a little bit of research and sometimes just speaking to a potential therapist honestly about your want to change and lack of finances to do so, you can typically find someone willing to work with you.
- Let Go of the Crutch
There is nothing I used to enjoy more after an exceptionally hard day than an exceptionally strong drink. Trust me. But silencing your insecurities by turning off your brain is a short-term solution that creates larger, long-term problems. Alcohol is a depressant so it goes without saying that if you’re feeling down, it isn’t the best medicine. Other drugs or crutches may help to put a bandage on your problems, but they won’t ultimately help solve them, creating chemical imbalances out of your control that physically disable your ability to be as happy as you’d like. Dealing with life’s problems head-on, healthy & sober is the best way to go.
- Think Positively
It sounds cheesy, but even faking a smile can trick your brain into lowering stress levels and thinking you’re really happy (Google it). When you’re down, dig out some old photo albums and think of some great memories that make you smile. Don’t be afraid to ask your family & friends what they enjoy about your company and make a list of what they say so you can look back on it when you don’t feel like you have anything nice to say about yourself.
- Be Grateful
Don’t forget, even when you’re convinced it may have made your life more difficult, you were given a great gift that millions of people wish they had. Remember that. Research has shown that people who practice an attitude of gratitude express less stress and anxiety, and more social support. In another analysis, teens that ruminated on their blessings reported more satisfaction and optimism when compared to those who didn’t.
Art is hard but it can also be the most fulfilling thing in the world. Life won’t always be roses, but what you do to maintain your resilience and perseverance during the worst of times will prepare you to deal with anything life throws at you, artistic or otherwise. With that, you can continue creating & living a healthy, happy life in the process, no matter what. Don’t get it twisted, I hope you strike gold, sell out every arena & live out your wildest dreams, but no matter what I hope you’re happy.
I mean, wasn’t that always the real goal in the end?
Dave Cavalier is a songwriter and recording artist currently based in Los Angeles, CA. He has opened for Buddy Guy, Eddie Vedder & countless more at large music festivals across the country. His latest EP, “Rumors” is currently available across all digital outlets.