The Mental Health of Tour Life - On and Off the Road
by Ryan Philip George
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on thistourlife.com, and has been reprinted with the author’s permission.
The touring industry is a very demanding field to work in, both physically and mentally. Most of us are familiar with the routine - step out the front door, get into an ‘Uber’, head to the airport, check our luggage, get through security, grab a coffee, walk down the jet bridge, buckle in for the ride and finally take off. That’s just the beginning of it all - there may be many additional challenges, stresses, and successes ahead.
But before you begin your run, ask yourself - where is your head?
Are there unsettled issues at home? Are you excited? Nervous? Stressed? Ready to take on a new challenge? Worried you don’t posses all the skills the gig requires? Uncertain of where you stand amongst the rest of the camp? Are you preparing to be healthier on the road? Have you set yourself up to succeed or to just fall back into the same old same habits? Amid the myriad of things you need to have in order, your mental health should be your biggest priority. Why? Because everything else will follow if that is in top shape.
According to the World Health Organization, 450 Million people suffer from mental illness. They also report studies stating that 1 in 4 people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. That places mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disabilities worldwide. A recent study conducted in Australia has spotlighted how large this issue is within our own industry.
You are not alone…
Working in the live event industry can be very rewarding.The love of music, traveling, the rush of the crowds, the energy of all involved is electric. Most say they do it because they love it; but that does not make it a perfect situation. The hours are a bit insane, the travel is extensive, and the stress can be overwhelming. Most power through, rise to the occasion and rock it! However, if you’ve been doing it long enough you are bound to have hit a wall or two (or three), made a mistake, or just didn’t fit in that particular camp. It takes a toll, and as amazing as most are in this business you are not superhuman nor infallible. If we are not careful it is possible for us to crash physically, emotionally, and mentally.
You may not realize it but you could be in a downward spiral. It is important to be aware of the signs:
Lack of sleep
This decline in well-being may create lasting physical damage. Each time this happens it’s wearing down your resilience and slowing your ability to recover. This can result in depression and/or anxiety that is easily and often triggered.
Ignored or unaddressed burnout can have significant consequences, including:
A negative spillover into personal relationships or home life
Alcohol or substance abuse
Type 2 diabetes, especially in women
Vulnerability to illnesses
Depression and anxiety can cost you jobs, opportunities, and relationships. While we may not feel all the negative effects of touring while on the road, the effects can hit us hard a day or so after we return home. For some, being home can be bittersweet. It may be likened closest to soldiers away from home. As much as they look forward to getting back home they often report finding themselves longing for a return to the fray. It’s not the battle that the soldiers most often report wanting to get back to, but a longing for the camaraderie, ‘brotherhood’ and support that comes from being in a unit; like being in a tribe. Although touring is not a life and death situation, it is a unit working close together with the bond of a common goal and shared invested success.
At home we may feel a lack of purpose, direction, or usefulness that we get from being a part of a “tour family”. We can feel isolated amongst friends and family who may have difficulty relating, or who may express jealousy of your life on the road. Seeing the world is amazing, but the downsides are many. We are not always able to keep constant, quality communication with loved ones. We can experience long stretches away from home, followed by extended periods at home without work and a paycheck. We sometimes may struggle with relating to the 9-5 lifestyle or feel out of touch with our home lives. We miss lots of events and have a tough time planning or committing to things more than a few days in advance.
Depression and anxiety are ramped in this tour life. We often don’t know exactly what our schedule will be or when we’re leaving next, sudden extended tour dates or worse, cancelled ones. When it’s good it’s great, and when it’s not it’s rough. Your mental health is where your resilience, strength and prosperity will lay. Be proactive instead of remaining in denial that you are impervious to any of this. Be prepared when getting ready to head out on the road.
First, visit your doctor and talk about your mental and physical health. Make sure you are always on top of needed prescriptions. Besides those who need medication there are things we all should do for our mental “hygiene”. Learn about coping strategies like diet, exercise, meditation, keeping a journal, supplements etc.
Some mental health issues are genetic and those who know this affects them should take the extra steps needed to be prepared. The US embassy can help you locate medical services and also help with what substances are prohibited in any given country.
Monitor your intake. It is no secret that touring, as has been the subject of our other articles, can play havoc on the body and the mind. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again- late nights, early mornings, little sleep, long hours, questionable food choices, irregular exercise, alcohol and drugs can take a life lasting toll if not controlled or counteracted with good, consistent habits in time.
Seek Help. If you feel you are struggling with burnout, depression, anxiety or general feeling of isolation due to the nature of touring, reach out either to a professional, a mentor, trusted friend, family or significant other. Do not be afraid to ask for help. We all need to lean on each other now and again. Everyone should seek a mentor or counsel from others they trust. This quality makes us stronger, not weaker, and is way to relate to others.
There are many options these days utilizing technology to connect you with therapists, family, friends or significant others including something as simple as using Skype. There are apps available that help with mood tracking. Mood tracking can help you figure out if there are specific triggers that contribute to whatever you may be struggling with.
All work and no play…
Days off on the road can be a sacred time to catch up on rest. Although this can be necessary, try to add other activities as well. Make some time to get out and explore, go for a walk, visit a museum, go to a gym, do yoga or just stretch. Mobility is you next biggest asset in longevity after your mental state.
Set some goals.
It’s a new year, some say it’s a time for new beginnings, new perspectives and maybe a renewed interest in self-improvement. It can be a time for setting new goals or maybe — finally accomplishing old ones. This for some can be invigorating, inspiring and full of hope. For others it can be daunting, overwhelming and sometimes depressing. For those who feel that pressure or self-doubt, let me just say take a breath. If you’re seeking change, as most of us are in the new year, don’t set yourself up for failure by biting off more than you can chew. Before you start your journey you need to mentally set yourself up for success. You should first have some smaller goals you can accomplish quickly, which will build confidence and then larger ones that will need you to be consistent over a much longer timeline.
You’ll ultimately need to build better habits not just temporary fixes in order to make lasting change. Just like trying to get to the top of a building that does not have an elevator, you need to take it step by step in order to get to the top. Each small step you take gets you closer to your larger goal. Too often we overwhelm ourselves with everything all at once. This is the mental war we fight before we even get started. We often talk ourselves out of the first step mentally before we even take a single step physically. All action starts in the brain. Why does this matter? Well, as a culture we put very little effort into our mental health, yet it is the birthplace of all our ideas, reactions and habits; good or bad. Having the right mental attitude towards the outside world and ourselves will determine almost everything about our lives.
This lifestyle can spark mood changes, depression, anxiety and uncharacteristic behaviors. When repressed and not addressed these changes can carry over to your home life. Sustained exposure to high levels of stress may create PTSD like symptoms. Lack of job security or worse over confidence in job security can create a type “touring Stockholm Syndrome” so to speak, the highly emotional state of tour and closeness with the artist may lead us to blindness that we are irreplaceable. There is an intensity and commitment to perfection that can be demanded when touring with a highly successful Artist. There is an infectious vibe that is often personified by the adoring crowds. A level of performance pressure to excel for all involved creating a dependence and emotional investment that needs to be put into perspective at times. If you put all your self-confidence and identity into one thing it can easily fail you or you move on and you are left with a hole. Always know what your personal goals are in this venture, don’t be marginalized by the wave of self-importance of an individual tour or artist. Have an exit strategy. When dealing with issues maintain a dignified and professional attitude. Heavy emotional ties can lead to severe emotional distress when things, on any level or reason, no longer work out. This can be an underlying source of depression and suicidal thoughts.
Let go of any issues with whatever personal feelings you have developed about self-improvement; that can be the difference between life and death…literally. We all need to learn how to maintain our mental health. Tour life can be a very unhealthy work environment if you let it. Performing daily mental and physical beneficial acts can make huge improvements to counteract the negative stresses we can be subjected to repeatedly. Find what works for you, invest and trust the process.