When we enjoy our work, and it's a part of who we are, it's harder to be mindful of sneaky burnout gremlins. So how can we make sure we look after our mental health when our creative minds never take a break?
Creativity isn’t just a job we have. We don’t leave it at the studio door when we finish up for the day. Because of this, creative folks often have a lot of their own projects going on outside of their creative employment.
On top of the social, family and general life admin everyone has to deal with, this can mean the potential for burnout is very high. It’s also hard to detect the signs because we find a lot of joy in all our creative pursuits and work. When something is fun, you don’t really want to stop doing it, even for a much needed rest.
For Mental Health Awareness week, the focus was on anxiety. At Tilt we’re so thankful to have a @MHFAEngland trained studio manager. It means our creatives have mental health support whenever they need it and we’ve fostered a culture of openness and kindness to make sure every beautiful brain gets supported.
A couple of our creative team have shared their experiences of anxiety below in the spirit of openness and in solidarity with other creatives looking for ways to navigate mental health challenges. Over to Dan and Rachel…
I’ve experienced social anxiety for most of my life. As a teenager, I’d avoid going anywhere I had to engage with strangers on my own – not going to the doctors or dentist, cutting my own hair instead of going to a salon, choosing a degree where I didn’t have to do presentations. I would never speak up in class.
At my first creative job, sometimes I’d make the morning commute to London, only to phone in sick from the payphone at Victoria, and head back to Brighton overwhelmed with nerves. I always felt like an imposter.
My palms would be sweating and heart thumping as I waited to introduce myself at a client meeting, with an overly rehearsed very short intro. Mostly I’d be ok once I got going, and I did a good job of hiding it.
Once however, I had a full-blown panic attack in the client board room of a Canary Wharf skyscraper. I had to pretend I was about to vomit and run to the toilets, much to the confusion of the hosts. The same happened at a job interview with a games company. I didn’t get the job of course.
It had become all about the fear of the fear, where your mind jumps to fight or flight mode way too early, and you’re flushed with adrenaline, unable to think or speak clearly. This would come after days of growing tension leading up to an important meeting, interview or presentation. The problem is, how can you expect people to feel confident in you if you don’t appear confident in yourself? It felt very lonely.
A long time ago, a friend said to me that it gets better when you realise it’s a good thing to be different. It sounds cheesy now, but he was right. I learnt to accept the anxiety as a part of what makes me who I am – let it flow, rather than getting tied up in fighting it, and even grow to appreciate it in some ways.
For a start, it’s channelled me towards gaining self esteem through creating great things, rather than being able to sell myself with words. This in turn has encouraged me to strive for high creative standards, and feel mortified if I don’t attain them. It also steered me towards starting my own business.
You would imagine that this requires a great deal of social confidence, but in my case it was the most logical way of earning a living as a creative, without having to succeed at the interview process, or trying to climb the company ladder. I could do things on my own terms, and at least when I was a freelancer, if I let anyone down, it would only be myself.
Experiencing social anxiety makes you empathetic to others who suffer from shyness. I recognise it in other people, and know that someone who is very nervous at an interview, is likely to be trustworthy and conscientious in their work – it shows they care. There are some jobs where confidence is key, but it would be great if more employers could understand that not everyone can sell themselves, and that doesn’t necessarily make them bad at their jobs. The quietest voices often have the most interesting things to say.
For me, it’s important to find a way through things and not let social anxiety stop you in your tracks – to gently plant yourself into situations that you know will be frightening, but without tipping yourself over the edge; To not beat yourself up if things don’t go so well, and to understand that the anxiety will always pass with time – often once the big challenge is completed and you feel great for achieving it. You have to be on the front foot, not backing yourself into a corner.
It’s helpful to be honest with colleagues about your anxiety so that you can be yourself at work, and feel assured that people will not unwittingly throw you into an unnecessarily challenging situation without warning. I know someone who has their diagnosed social anxiety written into their job contract, so they’re never expected to do a presentation if they don’t feel comfortable with it.
I find that good preparation is key to successful presentations or important meetings – so that if the nerves take over, I have a comprehensive understanding of the project, and extensive notes to carry me through.
When I feel anxious, I find that exercise is one of the best antidotes. I’ll always try to have a run on the morning of a presentation, and if I’m at home, do some star jumps before a big call if I feel the nerves building. I’ve found that avoiding caffeine and taking herbal remedies such as Kalms does wonders to stop the heartbeat from racing.
Very occasionally I’ll use beta blockers prescribed by the doctor if things are really bad – although once the initial nerves subside, it can be hard to concentrate, so I will usually avoid them. CBT and talking therapy have also helped me to untangle the roots of my social anxiety, and given me an arsenal of techniques to avoid getting to a state of panic.
Particularly after Covid, I think social anxiety seems to be lurking everywhere. A friend who is a university lecturer recently told me that often when a student is diagnosed with anxiety, you’ll never hear from them again. Game over. I think that is such a shame and a waste of talent.
As we start to talk about these things and the taboos around mental health begin to dissipate, I’m hoping we’ll see greater understanding that we all can shine in our own particular ways, bringing a wide diversity of thought and abilities to the table. I try to be very honest about my anxiety, because only when it’s out in the open and people understand it, can we start to make things better.
There are different kinds of ADHD and therefore different ways to approach understanding and managing it both for yourself, your employer, your friends, family and your partner. This Mental Health awareness week, I wanted to share my journey to understanding my ADHD journey.
It was last year when I had my first baby that I realised something wasn’t quite as it should be, that I wasn’t coping in the way I was before. ‘Uh yeah, of course Rachel, you had a baby!’ – I hear you say. But it was really something quite different I noticed once I’d returned to working life. I’ve never been a naturally organised or focused person, it took a lot of practice and development of coping mechanisms to stay on top of things.
Despite it not coming naturally, I was good at being disciplined in making sure it rarely became an issue. When I had my son, all my fine tuned coping mechanisms went out of the window. They just didn’t work anymore. Becoming a parent changes what you care about, where you put your time and energy, how you view the world and how you prioritise. For someone who is neurodivergent, that huge shift causes your world’s axis to be completely thrown off.
My undiagnosed ADHD caused a lot of anxiety. I worried about the impact my limited attention span or, conversely, the intense bouts of hyperfocus, had on the people around me. Mostly my friends and family because they bore the brunt of it. I use up all my capacity for discipline, patience and attention for work and my toddler. It’s a cup that gets emptied very quickly and needs constant filling.
I have yet to perfect a method for doing that. What looks careless and uninterested to the outside world is actually my buzzing brain getting excited and curious about almost everything that crosses my path. I spend almost every moment of every day reminding myself to stay on task.
Living that way means I worry a lot about what I might miss or get wrong. It means I feel sad that the things that excite me and get me hyper focused are not appreciated or understood by others. What people like me need is a lot of understanding, gentle reminders and patience but that can often lead people in our lives to feel like nags. So thus begins the cycle of anxiety again.
Learning everything there is to know about the dragons of George R R Martin stories, hyperfocus editing sessions until 4am or getting deeply involved in yet another new hobby only for it to die a month later, sounds fun and spontaneous.
But I ended up feeling a lot of guilt and shame for how my brain works. In the spirit of openness among our creative circles, it feels good to share my experience with exploring a possible ADHD diagnosis. I know I’m not the only one out there and there is comfort and power in the neurodivergent creative community.
Talking about it helps remove the taboo and sense of shame and means we get the support and understanding we all need.