Ask a professional: Difficult mental health scenarios, and how to approach them
Tamsin Embleton was an event booker, promoter and artist manager for ten years before training as a psychotherapist. She's a founding member of the Music Industry Therapist Collective, and is currently researching the psychological impact of touring on people in music. We ask Tamsin a series of hypothetical questions relating to possible mental health and wellbeing scenarios
You’ve been attempting to take a step away from drugs and alcohol, but you have a run of shows coming up where you know you’ll be heavily back in that environment. How do you get through the shows, and what do you say to people trying to ply you with substances and make you come to the after-party, etc?
“Plan how you’ll use your rest days (swimming, local green spaces, massage, acupuncture, calling friends, whatever brings you peace). Where possible, ring-fence time for exercise and relaxation each day — it will help your body and mind cope with the rollercoaster. If you’re happy to, request earlier or consistent set-times and travel times across the tour to help with sleep disruption.
“Send your dry rider preferences to the promoter ahead of time (and remind the artist liaison again nearer to show day). They may be able to offer you a dry green room. Request a hotel with exercise facilities and ask for a quiet bedroom (ideally with black-out curtains or blinds). Ask for 20 minutes privacy in the green room before and after the set to focus, re-centre and wind down. Ahead of time, ask the promoter to book you a taxi after your set and explain to anyone trying to coax you to an after-show that unfortunately you’ve got an early start. Remember to pack ear-plugs, an eye mask and a night-time tea that contains valerian. The 4-6-8 breathing technique and the app Pzizz can help promote sleep. You can also try a portable SAD lamp for mornings (which will help your body to adjust to a disrupted pattern). Some artists report that a course of vitamin B12 injections helps regulate stress and energy levels.
“If you are in a 12-step programme, find local meetings you can attend. If you have sober friends in the city you’re playing in, add them to your guestlist and let them know your situation. If you are working with a therapist, keep up sessions while you’re away. Alternatively, you can work with a sober coach to help keep you on track.”
You’re a DJ on tour, stuck in a hotel room at an unearthly hour before your gig, and you start having a panic attack. What can you do?
“A panic attack is a sudden and intense experience that manifests in symptoms like feeling frightened, breathlessness, sweating, dry-mouth, dizziness, disorientation, shaking, nausea and rapid and/or irregular heartbeats. Panic attacks distort your thinking as well as give you physical symptoms. The first thing to remember is that you are not in any danger. Nothing bad will happen to you. You might think that you’re going to have a heart attack, but you aren’t. This will pass. Use this simple technique called EGO to reduce the symptoms:
E - is for exhale. We’re going to bring your heart-rate down by elongating your out-breath. This will help remind your body that it’s safe. Sit up straight and open out your shoulders. Take a breath in and then elongate your out-breath. Repeat for 3-5 minutes. You can listen to calming music, or follow a breathing video on YouTube (there are YouTube videos and apps like the Cam app, find one you like and practice at a time you are not feeling anxious). Some people like to visualise breathing out chaos and breathing in courage.
G - is for grounding. Bring your attention to your body. How do the points of contact with the floor or chair feel? Start with your toes and gradually move your attention up through your body to the top of your head. What sensations can you feel in each area of your body? Soften any areas holding tension. You can find guided body scans online.
O - is for orientate. Move your focus to where you are. Notice any sounds around you as you sit and re-centre. What can you see? Focus on an object and explore it, try to describe it as best you can. How might it feel, what texture does it have? How heavy is it?
When you are feeling more yourself again, reflect on what might have triggered the panic attack. The trigger may be a situation, a feeling, an object or a person.”
You’re a once-successful DJ who has faded from the limelight somewhat in the last couple of years, and now that you hardly get any bookings any more, you’re depressed. What can you do?
“Losing your career can be a very painful transition to negotiate. It can feel as if you’ve given everything you have to an industry that then rejects you. You can be left feeling confused, angry, ashamed, disappointed, or questioning your relevance, self-worth and even your identity.
“Give yourself time to grieve the loss and reflect on what the most prominent features of it are — e.g. shame, rejection, lack of control, fear of the future/ uncertainty, loss of status/friends/community/income/way to express yourself and feel connected, etc. That’ll help give you a sense of what’s hit you hardest and what you have to work on.
“Once you have processed your feelings and accepted where you are, figure out what it is that you need right now. This is where a support network outside of the music industry is invaluable. Can you reframe your circumstance as an opportunity to explore or engage with other parts of yourself? Maybe there were things that your DJ career prevented you from doing that you’d like to try, new avenues to consider or skills you’d like to build.
“Don’t let the ending overshadow what you have achieved in your career. This is not a personal failure, careers in the industry are often short-lived.”
A raver in their late teens/early 20s is becoming increasingly put off by the culture of alcohol and drugs in clubs and at after-parties. They love the music and are happy to socialise, but they're worried that if they say they don't want to “take part” that their friends will feel that they're being judged, and stop hanging out with them. How would you recommend a young person navigates this scenario?
“Peer pressure is an intimidating experience, and the fear of it can be just as bad! It can be challenging to go against the grain (especially at an age when fitting in feels important). Fear of losing friends or of being shamed can get in the way of being true to yourself. Continuing to do things that don’t feel right for you comes at great personal cost, though, so try to dig deep and find some courage.
“Speak to friends one-to-one and explain that you still want to be involved, but you won’t be drinking or taking drugs. Be clear on your boundaries, and practice what you’ll say if you’re offered. You may find that your friends respect you for being assertive. You might even find an ally. Some friends may take it badly, so be prepared for a range of responses. If your friends continue to pressurise you, take a step back and have a think about what’s going on. Does the friendship rely on you conforming? Is that working for you?
“Don’t let what other people think, or what you think they might think, get in the way of something that brings you joy. You’re no less of a person (or a clubber) because you don’t take drugs. Visit the Club Soda site to find out about sober raves/conscious clubbers, and get more support.”
You’ve noticed that a friend is consistently doing a heavy amount of drugs and/or alcohol all the time — not just when they’re out. How do you broach the subject with them?
“Find somewhere private where you can have a confidential one-to-one conversation. Choose a time where they are not likely to be intoxicated. Aim to speak from a place of compassion, rather than judgement. Try opening up the conversation with an 'I' sentence rather than a 'You' sentence (which can feel blaming), such as 'I’ve noticed that...' or 'I’m concerned about...' Then ask what’s been going on for them. Ask if they are having a hard time and suggest that maybe they could use some help.
“Let them know that you are there for them and that you know that it can be hard to take the next step alone. Take some info on local 12 step meetings, addiction services and offer to attend or to book an appointment with their GP. If they work in the music industry, you could also give them Music Support's details (0800 030 6789), so they have something to go away with.
“Be aware that your friend may not be ready to hear what it is you have to say. Recovery takes time and denial is a common stage that many people go through. You have planted a seed, though, and it may come to something later on. Lastly, look after yourself — helping others can take its toll.”
Someone in the music industry comes to you with ‘burnout’ — they’re a promoter or manager or agent (not a DJ) with a heavy rave and/or travel schedule. They're tired, stressed and lonely, maybe drinking too much and doing too many drugs on the road to keep up appearances. What advice would you give them in navigating a better work/life balance, with themselves and those around them?
“Burnout is what happens when an exhausted and stressed body says ‘No, enough, we have to stop!’ It’s the result of an unmanageable workload. Your mind is out of sync with your body, you’ve taken too much on and your body is putting on the brakes.
“Burnout is not just an emotional experience, it impacts your brain as well as your body, decreasing your productivity, creative capacity and impacting memory, increasing anxiety. You may feel overwhelmed, hopeless, cynical and have low self-esteem.
“We're all susceptible to burnout, and we all have our limits. So, what are you going to do about it? First of all, visit your GP. You need to take your recovery seriously and that means reducing your workload or taking a break. The drugs and alcohol may seem like they’re helping you cope, but they’re adding to the stress on your body so you need to reassess what you’re putting into it and consider how you can support it better. Think compassionately about your current stress levels and your work-life balance. Something needs to change. Ask yourself a few questions:
Q. How is your work/life balance?
Q. What does your support network look like and how comfortable are you using it?
Q. How available do you really need to be, and in what way, in order to do your job?
Q. How comfortable are you putting in boundaries and saying ‘no’?
Q. Are you able to make some time for yourself without feeling guilty or anxious?
Q. In what areas of your life do you feel fulfilled?”
Tasmin Embleton is currently crowdfunding to publish an in-depth, clinically-sound, practical manual to support and guide all those who struggle on tour. Support the cause here.
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