a dancer bent forward with arms up as though carrying something heavy with the words 5 ways to combat artistic existential dread

5 Ways to Combat Artistic Existential Dread: Mental Health for Artists

I used to joke that if you are an artist, you’ll have an existential crisis at least once every six months. It’s not really that funny, though, because it’s so true, and depending on how things are going I might have several crises in a much shorter timeframe.

I think for an artist, questions like why am I doing this, what’s the point, and really what am I doing are quite normal and can actually be productive as it helps you realign and keep focused on why you are doing what you’re doing. But there’s the usual existential crisis, and then there’s existential dread. For me, existential dread moves from why am I here to a much more intense oh god what is going to happen to my art and art in general and everything will be terrible.

I’m pretty sure almost every artist experienced some form of existential dread over the pandemic, and there’s more of it now as spammy AI “art” is eating up social media and the market. Mental health for artists is more important than ever, and no – depressed artists are not a standard we should uphold.

You can create deep, existential, soul-wrenching artworks without losing yourself in the process.

I’m not a ‘method’ artist, in other words. In my book, you don’t need to put yourself into a fragile, vulnerable, or emotionally fraught state in order to create good work. Neither am I in the camp that you should never acknowledge or deal with existential dread. I’m not at all a “good vibes only” kind of person or blog, and I see toxic positivity as dangerous as toxic negativity.

Where I stand is that existential dread happens, and will happen, and the best we can do is to develop some strategies to combat it when it comes.

I have some strategies that work for me. The complicated bit is that sometimes the strategies are opposing and the trick is to figure out when to apply what. When it doubt, try one then another, and see what helps.

Create for you and/or take time off

Sometimes when I’m in the throes of existential dread, I forget why I do what I do. I do it because I love it. When you aren’t making money off your art or you see your industry struggling, you can get lost. During the pandemic, for example, I watched my industry (the performing arts) pretty much implode, and it had a huge affect on me.

But the truth is that I don’t dance or perform because there’s an industry. I do it because I have to, because it’s the only thing in the world that I really understand, because it gives me life.

Sometimes forgetting about making a product, like a finished performance, helps remind me of that. I find when I get in those phases that every movement I make, I’m analyzing if it works, if it tells a story. What I really need to do in those times is just move.

However, sometimes when you are in a phase of existential dread, you hate everything you make. In that case, it’s probably time to take a break. Taking time off is really hard for an artist, but even if it’s a day or two, switching off and letting your brain rest can help. I’ve also found that keeping a day to not create or think about anything during the week helps this as well.

Rebalance and/or wait it out

Sometimes the only thing I need to do is just wait out the wave. Often, if I just acknowledge that it’s there and let it hang out like a slightly odious house guest, it will leave on its own. The important part for this is acknowledgement – if I try to pretend everything is fine, it gets worse. I have to know it’s there and name it for what it is. But from there, I can often just wait it out.

Of course, when this happens due to long term shifts, like a pandemic or COVID 19, it might not be able to wait out the external reasons. As a note here, while external reasons can have a huge affect on mental health for artists, I think that we do have some control. During the pandemic, having dance parties for myself, performing live on social media, and taking lots of time off did help me face the existential dread. Externalities can’t be controlled; thoughts can.

(Note: I’m not here to say that clinical depression or other mental health issues can be fully solved just ‘by thinking good thoughts.’ I know that’s not true. Here I’m just looking at strategies for a specific feeling that artists get around their work and industry.)

While waiting it out has worked often in the past for me, sometimes the existential dread is a sign that something is out of balance. It could mean I’m not spending enough time creating, or creating things I want to create. It could mean my mental space is too occupied by some non-art related issue. In this case, often the best way to deal with the feeling is to figure out how to rebalance or adjust the balance to prioritize more of the joy of art and not the dread.

Go back to the center

Really, at the end of the day, one of the worst things that I can do for these moments of existential dread is listen to people. Everyone has something to say about how you should deal with it: make more art! Become a lawyer! Embrace AI!

Essentially, often experiencing existential dread means that I’m off my center. It could be for internal or external reasons, but the point is that I’m off balance somehow. The best thing I can do is re-center. My center will not be the same as you, and that’s why I say, don’t listen to people. Try to recenter – whether that’s making art for fun or putting it aside for awhile, whether it’s changing something drastic or just spending more time thinking about and enjoying your field.

I think the important thing to remember is that art as an industry gets wrapped up in all the stuff that makes things terrible: capitalism, monetization, fake validation, etc. But art itself is deeper, stronger, and so much more than that, and you are an artist because you loved that. So while the dread is after you, lean into that, the thing in humans that says, I need to create, and does so.