Mental Health: The Body Keeps the Score


Vital Signs to look for include anxiety
Over reacting 
And lack of joie de vivre
Breathing in, Breathing out
Awareness of the body brings healing about 1

Vital Signs is a song I composed about looking out for signs of stress in your body; it’s a song written from personal experience. Generally speaking, most artists make work on things they know about, or something they want to learn more about, as a way to connect with people – as a way to raise awareness. This has been my year for learning about minding my mental health and my body, a subject which has never been more important, as artists begin to come to terms with the repercussions of COVID-19. 

Last year I was burnt out from overwork and stress, a common occurrence for many artists, due to the pressures of juggling multiple jobs and commissions. At my worst, I was sad and irritable, had no energy (yet was unable to sleep); I had gastrointestinal issues and then to top it off, I got shingles. As the author, Bessel van der Kelk, writes: “The Body Keeps the Score”.

Many independent Irish artists and art workers experience high levels of stress and pressure trying to make ends meet – it’s a precarious way to earn a living. The gig economy ensures the many artists have no job security, sick leave or pension. The fact that it’s rare to be paid on time for a project or commission means that we often say yes to everything, as a tactic for ensuring regular cash flow. Every project brings with it a healthy amount of stress and anxiety but commit to one too many and your adrenal and stress hormones and mental health can become compromised. What results is an overworked, tired and stressed human being.

As Dr Gabor Maté has pointed out in his book, When the Body Says No, there is a strong link between prolonged stress, pressure and anxiety and effects on the immune system.2 Such pressures can lead to ongoing health issues such as gastrointestinal, heart and respiratory diseases and quite often mental health issues and depression. 

COVID-19 is currently acting as an additional stressor for artists – both financially and emotionally. This has been demonstrated in recent testimonies from artists across social media and in a recent Irish Times article, where many writers professed that despite having lots of extra time, with all of the traumatic effects of the pandemic, they just can’t write.3 

Like many fellow artists, all of my upcoming commissions have been cancelled. This March I was due to undertake a project in the USA and a performance in Berlin. My contracted arts coordination work with the Clare Arts Office has ended until further notice. I am grateful to those arts organisations that I am due to work with later in the year, such as Ormston House and 126 Artist-Run Gallery, who have offered advance payments as a support. 

My own response to COVID-19 is like a wave. I am up and down on a daily basis, but coping much better since I have stopped expecting myself to be as productive as ‘normal’ in this abnormal situation. I am spending my days reading, writing and walking, being reminded of what it is like for creativity to arise without the push of productivity and deadlines. As artists we have access to art processes that have much to offer us at this time: processes that can give us an outlet to express and connect with our own feelings and experiences – be they confusion, anger, grief or joy.  

In finding ways to tackle my own financial and health issues, the following have been some of my self-care strategies (of which I am still learning): My first step was to honestly reassess and take into account all of my financial and wellbeing needs, which includes my wish to have savings and a nest egg. When I undertook this process I learned several things: that I wasn’t charging enough to make my required annual income; that some projects will never have the budget to meet my daily fees; and that I need to be careful how many projects I commit to annually. I learned, when looking through the lens of health and wellbeing, that realistically, I only have the mental, physical, creative capacity to undertake a certain number of projects per year. I made the decision to undertake part-time arts managerial work, which took the pressure off earning all of my income from art making. COVID-19 has caused me to yet again assess the lack of security that contract work offers me. 

Sometimes success or development is not about working harder. It is learning how we can be more strategic with our time and energy. It is difficult to make changes and to create new boundaries. However, support is available. I have previously consulted therapists, financial advisors and business mentors, and I will continue to do so. More broadly, it is time for a seismic shift in regard to how artists are paid and how we make a living. I believe that part of this cultural shift will require more honesty on the part of artists, in terms of our need, and right, for employment supports and appropriate remuneration for our work. The future can be brighter and we create change for ourselves and each other.

Ceara Conway is an artist/singer and composer based in the west of Ireland.

1 Vital Signs is available on my ‘Viriditas’ album, commissioned by Galway ECOC and Saolta Arts on
2 Gabor Maté, When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection, (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc, 2011). 
3 Doyle Martin, ‘Irish writers on Covid-19: We’re all having a shockin’ dose of the Wombles’, The Irish Times, Saturday 28 March 2020.