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How do arts organisations and individuals cope when what we do so instinctively is threatened? Lead the way and self care says Suzanne Alleyne.

Without a clear end to this crisis, self care needs to come first

Miki Czetti

There is no preamble needed, coronavirus has impacted us all: board members, technicians, the employed, the newly unemployed and those in between. Let’s jump straight in and talk about how self care can help us. It’s not the whole solution but it plays a crucial part. 

Part of what we are feeling is grief, not just for the horrendous loss of life we are seeing around us but grief for the absence of normalcy. We also feel fatigue which combined with fear stops us performing well. How can self care support us? Think of self care as a life jacket or even an oxygen mask - we’ve all heard it, put your oxygen mask on before helping others. You cannot work effectively when you’re exhausted to the point of dropping. The arts have long been under pressure to deliver more for less. There is something called ‘allostatic load’ that describes the negative effect chronic wear and tear has on our mind and bodies. As a sector we were already under pressure; coronavirus has multiplied that pressure exponentially.
To enact self care you need to name the situation you're in, it’s hard to change what you can’t speak out loud. Coronavirus has hit us fast and hard and there are seismic daily changes happening to us and around us. In a fake news world,’ ‘unprecedented ', ‘unchartered territory’ and ‘global pandemic' feel terrifying because they speak to the truth. 

Making our self care a priority is key to making small steps forward in what can only be described as very murky territory

Feeling overwhelmed

Knowing all of this and managing the impact so we can function at an optimal level are two different things. Added to this we are trying to process so much new information daily. Writer and poet JJ Bola captured the sentiment beautifully: “I know artists/creatives are supposed to create and make art at a time like this but, I'll admit, I am absolutely struggling. I dunno man. My head constantly feels like it's gonna explode. Really overwhelmed. And just flat out exhausted. Anyone else feel like this?”

We in the arts narrate life's stories for our communities. But how do arts organisations and individuals cope when creating – that thing we do so instinctually – is threatened? 

Right now, we can define self care as the skill of articulating and acting on your needs so you can function well. For anyone who has a duty of care to others, you need to think through your needs and facilitate those around you to engage with theirs. 

Where to start

What can we do? Start with self care, put that life jacket on. When you prioritise self care you help your mind and body to function more effectively and you give permission to those around you to follow your lead and care for themselves. A well-written wellbeing policy or statement is useless if the culture of an organisation or a sector says otherwise. If you lead and struggle with self care, have an open and honest brainstorm with your team – great ideas don't have to come from the top. Remember those that are marginalised or sit at intersections such as gender, ethnicity, faith or disability often have a harder time getting their self care needs met.

Then there's deep breathing – it can still our bodies and our minds. There is a science behind this: research says deep breathing can clear your bloodstream of cortisol (a stress hormone) in as little as one minute. There are a lot of free apps that will guide you but simply put, close your eyes, sit as straight as you can and breathe slowly, in through your nose to the count of three, out through your nose to the count of three. 

We have seen the advice to go for a walk. For some that may relieve tension but for others it may be physically impossible. What works for one person as self care may induce stress for another. One size does not fit all. The essence of self care is to find out what works for you as an individual or a team. In some cases individuals or organisations may need to press pause and take a break; how can we facilitate that when all our instincts say we need to focus on the money and staying afloat?

If you are struggling to work out where to start, here are some tips that might be helpful. If this feels difficult buddy up with someone and work on this together:

  • Acknowledge and accept how you are feeling at any moment
  • List your feelings and deal with them one at a time
  • Remember to breathe, if not the deep breathing just be conscious of your breath
  • Write a list of what you have power over versus the things that seem beyond your control. Focus on what you have power over
  • Give yourself time to process, schedule and prioritise whatever helps you to relax
  • Open windows and let in fresh air

With everything going on this article might feel like yet another thing to absorb. But let’s be clear: whether you are self isolating or working with your children at home, everyone needs a game plan. Making our self care a priority is key to making small steps forward in what can only be described as very murky territory. This crisis will not be over in a week and it's simply not sustainable to continue at this fast pace. For many of us self care can be the beacon that guides us through this time of uncertainty.  

Suzanne Alleyne is a cultural thinker and visiting research associate at King’s College London


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