Practicing Self-Care in the Arts

This guide provides some basic information and tips for practising self-care and maintaining good mental health.

Image: Jen Jamieson, Let's Make Love, Proximity Festival, 2014, photo by Peter Cheng.

Self-care is a practice that attends to the multiple ways in which the body—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually—can be engaged to self-regulate and heal from experiences of trauma or other disruptions to the healthy functioning of the body. Experiencing pain or dysfunction can happen for lots of reasons, and although it is important to understand their origin points and specific contexts, this guide will restrict itself to providing some basic information and tips for practising self-care. [More specific resources are offered in separate guides in the Well-being and self-care section.]

Like gender, sexuality, and lived experiences of all kinds that shape us as humans, we need to remember that mental health is a spectrum that we ALL exist on. And as such we all have mental health that changes over time. You may not have a diagnosed condition, but we all have mental health just like we all have physical health.

The importance of self-care for artists and art workers

Practising self-care is particularly important for artists whose work life is often precarious, typified by financial uncertainty and unpredictable work hours. With fewer resources as a result of lower incomes, an artist is less likely to access prohibitive expensive mental health practitioners. This makes it super important to understand what you can access at the most affordable rate, and to be aware of tools and strategies that can increase your feelings of empowerment and help you take charge of your mental well-being.

Navigating the System

For immediate or ongoing support, make an appointment with your GP. They can give you a Mental Health Plan which makes you eligible to receive up to 10 visits to a psychotherapist at a subsidised rate of $124.50 per session. Here’s a step by step guide on how this process works.

Recognising the Signs

The body is an amazing thing; and it has a number of warning systems. It is important and useful to take notice of the signs. They are trying to tell you something. The most basic signs that can interfere with our moods and affect how we are feeling is whether we have eaten or had enough sleep. Other persistent signs might be:

  • Scrambled thoughts, trouble organising your thoughts.
  • Difficulty focusing.
  • Insomnia
  • Rapid mood swings.
  • Rumination on a traumatic event or incident.
  • Rapid heart rate, palpitations.
  • Catastrophic thinking, black and white thinking.

This list is not comprehensive, and it is important you go to see a professional for a proper assessment.

Stay connected

One of the many signs that we may not be coping well is by isolating ourselves or avoidant behaviour. We may all do this from time to time, but persistent avoidance or isolation may indicate an unhealthy pattern that can make your condition worse. Do you have a partner, friend or family member who you can call, and check in with? Are you part of a community group? Better still: is there someone you can exercise with on a regular basis?

The Big Feels Club is a project started by Honor Eastly and Graham Panther in Melbourne to encourage connection; they offer online peer support and occasional real time gatherings.

Taking care of your body

There is a reason why the most common advice offered—from lifestyle magazines to professional health practitioners—for helping improve your mental health is: Sleep, Eat Well, and Exercise. This is because these actions aid your body’s natural systems for regulating your health and well-being. Even if you are prescribed medication, your best bet is to put in place healthy practices and habits that enhance your body’s ability to do its best job possible.

Sleep

This is when your body does a lot of cellular repair work and archives your memories; importantly deep sleep can also help you process difficult or stressful emotions in a safe space. Read more about what good sleep hygiene is here.

Exercise

Regular exercise that increases your heart rate at continuous intervals for at least a 30min period three times a week has many benefits. Among them, exercise can release feel good hormones endorphins and the neurotransmitter dopamine. More info here.

Gut Health

Emerging advancements in neuroscience have revealed the significance of our gut microbiome in influencing our moods. Our gut feelings are real – and are communicated to the brain through the vagus nerve, known as the tenth cranial nerve that runs from our brain and intersects with the enteric nervous system surrounding the gastro intestinal tract. Maintaining a healthy gut biome with a range of fermented foods and foods that produce certain bacteria in the gut has been demonstrated to enhance mood and cognition. More info here.

This guide is useful for covering the basics above.

Body based skills for self-soothing and calming

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is at its simplest is becoming aware of your thoughts and bringing your attention back to the present. You can never ‘overcome’ your wandering mind, it’s part of how you are built as a human. But strengthening your ability to bring your focus back into the now and the present will increase your ability to focus and will help keep your parasympathetic nervous system better calibrated. Here are five excellent exercises that gets you to practice mindfulness and can be used anywhere. Some of the best ways to practice mindfulness is with an app. Here are the top ten for 2019. You can also learn more about mindfulness with a huge number of audio books. Here is a top 30 list.

Breath work

Shallow over-breathing, or hyperventilation, can prolong feelings of anxiety by making the physical symptoms of stress worse. Controlling your breathing can help to improve some of these symptoms. Here is a short video for understanding how breathing can help return your body to a calm state.

Groundness

Stay Grounded – If you experience trauma or are triggered from a trauma association, this can cause you to disassociate. Here are some exercises that help you maintain contact with the ground or with your physical surroundings and keep you present. 

Intersectional approaches to self-care

Audre Lorde famously wrote in her collection of poems A Burst of Light that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Sara Ahmed a feminist scholar based in the UK has also written extensively about the experiences of self-care as a radical act of defiance on her site Feministkilljoy.

Self-care has become more prominent in popular discourse because of its easy conflation with self-reliance and independence; it fits neatly within the neoliberal efficacy mode of operating in the world that places emphasis on the individual without collective or commons owned systems of support. You can read excellent critiques of this here. The feminist writer Laurie Penny has also written about it here.

However, despite its emphasis on the Self as Individual, the most effective self-care is where you practice staying connected and in communication with others, preferably family and/or community. Self-care doesn’t mean that you are on your own; self-care means reaching out and understanding your needs so you can best communicate them to others. This will improve your chances of accessing the best resources to support you.

Our ability to practice self-care will differ greatly based on the circumstances in which we were raised and the kinds of self-care we need to practice will also be vary greatly according to the range of obstacles or systemic barriers in your life, and in particular how they intersect to multiply barriers, such as racism, class, gender, mobility, neurodiversity, among others.

For POC and queer black and trans folk: here are some resources and toolkits that speak to the intersection of these oppressions in terms of self-care and mental health.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBQTI people, Black Rainbow is Australia’s first and only National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer, Trans* and Intersex (LGBQTI) Suicide Prevention National Advocacy Platform and National Touchpoint. They support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBQTI people who are homeless, leaving domestic violence relationships or the justice system. They are 100% Indigenous owned and operated.

Handy links to national organisations in Australia

Here are the key organisations who offer free support and services.

Headspace – has online and telephone counselling services for young people 12-25 years.

beyondblue – has a wide range of information and resources about mental health, including online forums and a 24-hour phone service.

Black Dog Institute – has practical resources to help you as well as services you can access.

ReachOut - offers practical tools and support to help young people get through everything from everyday issues to tough times. 

Lifeline – Provides 24/7 emergency counsellor support

15 new guides, resources and links on self-care and wellbeing for artists have been added to the NAVA website.