Our Mentally In Tune series of articles aims to share conversations with musicians about mental health, whether we explore challenges or helpful approaches. We’ve loved hearing from musicians who have kindly shared their perspectives on life and the things they’ve found that work well for them, or just things that they’ve tried on their own journeys of wellness. These conversations aren’t intended to replace professional help, but will hopefully be good reminders that we’re not alone in our questions or uncertainties, and all learning more about ourselves.
Ahead of Tonight Alive‘s appearance at Unify Gathering 2020, I had the pleasure to get on the phone with the band’s frontwoman/vocalist Jenna McDougall. I’d been keen to interview Jenna for some time, and jumped at the opportunity to hear from her about her approach to wellness and how she finds balance for herself. I was aware that Tonight Alive had taken a break for reasons of mental and physical health, so it was clearly something that the band took seriously.
Through my haze of nervously excited giddiness, I managed to form an opening question; asking Jenna about whether she had some daily practices or rituals that she found helpful. She shared that she was currently in the process of doing a dietary cleanse/detox and was keeping a daily diary through the experience. As well as anxiety, Jenna shared that she had experienced eczema, brain fog, and other physical symptoms without obvious cause.
She had decided to go through a cleanse which involved things like lemon water in the morning, vegetable juices, and other supplements like spirulina. She says “The cleanse has been amazing. I’ve done it once before for a month and the first week was pure fatigue, the second week was really big inflammation with skin, and the next two weeks was like pure energy and focus and lightness and presence. It’s just like ‘I want to feel like this more often!’. So I’m doing it again. I think it’s actually quite life-changing. A lot of people reverse really serious illnesses with this protocol [sourced through Medical Medium]. I’m lucky to not be in that position but to be getting the benefits of just feeling fucking awesome and letting my body function at the level it should, at the level it’s capable of. That really excites me.”
On the diary, Jenna explained “I’m keeping a daily diary of how my mind and body feel, whether I ate sugar and whether I drank two litres of water. So I’ll kind of write each day what my moods were, how my mind felt, how did my body feel. So for instance lately my left hip’s been really tight and my skin’s a little flared up, so I just keep note of things like that and at the end of the week do a check-in.”
Jenna understands the direct connection between the physical body and our mental and emotional states, so her ritual of keeping a diary and noticing her health also includes supporting herself mentally. “Another thing that I was encouraged to do from my naturopath was at the end of the day write three things you love about yourself, which can be really really really difficult, but also really cool. Because you start to realise there’s a lot of things I value about who I am and how I treat people. If someone asked you, what do you love about yourself? It’d take you like 10 minutes sometimes to think of something that you didn’t feel embarrassed to say.”
Also with the diary, she will have a practice in mind; something she’s focusing on and trying to incorporate in her day. “The last thing I write in this daily diary is “Today I practiced” because sometimes it’s “Today I practiced being gentle with myself and others” or “Today I practiced teamwork”, “Today I practiced honest communication”. So it’s kind of just bringing more awareness and mindfulness into how I feel day to day and ‘Can I be intentionally present?’ and keeping a tally at the end of the week.”
Jenna says that although it sounds like a lot of work, it’s something she’s enjoyed doing for herself instead of the alternative of being on her phone in bed at the end of the day. She then can reflect on the previous days and acknowledge her own experiences and feelings: “At the end of the week, it’s like ‘Okay, actually four out of seven days this week I felt present, and I felt energised and I felt focused.’ That’s nothing to turn your nose up at! And it can also go the other way of course, like ‘I feel heavy. I feel disengaged. I feel pain.’ If you can start keeping score in a way or just start making yourself aware of how you’re feeling, then maybe you can take action to manage it more. So that’s the main thing I’m practicing at the moment.”
I really appreciated the gentleness of this approach, and how in comparison to rigid goals or routines, Jenna’s approach came with some acceptance of things happening as they happen, without judgement. Just allowing yourself to TRY to do something can be enough to inspire gradual change, without the pressure of an internal pass or fail expectation, which could potentially derail any efforts.
Jenna agreed with this, saying “Instead of being like ‘How much did I achieve today?’ like ‘How much did I knock off the to do list?’, it’s actually just ‘Where was I? How did I feel? What was I embodying? What was my intention?’. And sometimes the intention is enough. I’m finding that I’ll set a goal and it takes nine months to see that seed start to sprout. Sometimes it takes a really long time. It’s been really good to have a year off and have that perspective and not get frustrated with myself just because I didn’t achieve something in the two month break I had, or in a two-day weekend, you know?”
Prior to taking the year off, Jenna shared that she had found herself in “constant recovery” from being on tour. Instead of being able to do what she wanted to do for herself in downtime, much of the time was taken up with health challenges, which just seemed to get worse. She says “I was just getting sick in a different way each tour last year, and just feeling different body pains and aches and just not really being able to get on top of the symptoms that I didn’t even know the cause of them was. I know by Good Things last year I was just like… I actually didn’t know if I could play those shows and was talking to the guys about ‘How likely is it that we can pull out of Good Things? Because I don’t think I can do it.’ So just being on that verge for so long was like ‘I don’t want to come off tour and spend the two weeks that I have off to do what I want in recovery because I’m unwell’. It was just too exhausting. So that was the tipping point for me.”
Jenna explored that she may have had an auto-immune disease, and was getting blood tests and other checks for how she felt, as “something still feels to be really wrong”. She’s taken the time to recognise multiple factors to health (including mental health) and learning from it by acknowledging what her body is ‘saying’ to her. “Actually recognising that emotional and mental and things that are happening in the material world… All those influences can create physical symptoms and can create physical illness, so that’s what I’ve been uncovering. And through each ailment and each pain in a different place in my body, it’s like ‘What message does that have for me?’ and actually allowing myself the time to self enquire about addressing those kinds of indicators from the body.”
Though Jenna apologised for how much she was sharing, I was thoroughly enjoying the conversation and felt inspired by what she had to say, relating to my own mysterious health issues presently, and also how this situation can have the unexpected benefit of connecting us more with ourselves. We spoke about veganism also, as Jenna has been vegetarian since late 2014 and vegan at the start of 2016. She shared how she is enjoying gradually finding her voice in activism, happy to do so in an open and kind way. “I probably wouldn’t have resonated with aggression and things like that when I wasn’t already a vegetarian or a vegan, so I’m really happy to be offering information in a bit of a different way because I really want to get through to people and I think the more you know, the less you can partake in supporting the industry and ingesting the animal products themselves. For me I think it was this increased awareness that I was always in denial. If you have to put out of your mind what it is and what had to happen for it to be on your plate, I don’t want to be involved in that. I don’t want to enable and support denial and suppression of the truth.”
I thought about Unify Gathering 2020 then, where Tonight Alive “and friends” will be playing. Though Jenna was happy to keep it a secret until the event who the ‘friends’ are, she expressed excitement about the upcoming event, mostly due to having so much time between shows. “I’m sure some stress will arise at times, but I’m actually super looking forward to it and I’m really looking forward to making it a very intentional show, as in being really present for it and being really prepared as well. Because when you’re on tour and it’s just day after day of shows, you might get lazy just doing the warm up right before you go on stage or not being bothered to put effort into the outfit. I don’t know what it would be, but things get compromised when it’s not as valued. But when it’s one show in a year – which I’ve never experienced before – it’s given me a lot of time to think, ‘what do I want that show to feel like?’ and ‘how do I want people to receive it?’. Yeah, so I’m actually really looking forward to it.”
As Jenna shared that she had more time to talk than was planned, I asked her more about the things that she does for her mental health. Two of those are affirmations and meditation. “I love guided meditation and yoga nidra is my favourite type. And I use affirmations a lot. I’ll put them on pieces of paper around the house. The one that I’ve left up despite taking all the others down is ‘I am equipped and I am qualified’ and ‘I am a motivated individual’. I find that what you put in your affirmation is something that you want to resonate with but you might not yet. And now I DO feel, I am a motivated individual and I am equipped and I am qualified. I didn’t feel like that six months ago. So yeah I really find affirmations are effective.”
I shared with Jenna how I liked how this added to her journaling practice; going from ‘How do I feel?’ and then adding ‘How do I want to feel?’ to the equation. This inspired talking about manifesting and how it’s also been part of Jenna’s year. In Jenna’s words “You’ve probably already heard about how with manifesting, the way you actually make something a reality is by feeling in to what it would feel like to already be there or to have that thing. I’ve just been feeling into the type of life that I want to have and the type of person I want to be and actually creating it, because I’ve got the time and the space to do that, and it feels awesome.”
As to how Jenna goes about this ‘feeling into’ approach, she loves journaling and has also used books relating to healing that contain exercises alongside what they’re teaching. She mentions Light Emerging and Hands of Light, both by Barbara Ann Brennan. As an example of the kinds of exercises she means, Jenna said: “‘What’s one of your self-judgements?’ and then it’s like ‘What are you actually avoiding by having this judgement?’. So I think one of my self-judgements was ‘I never finish anything. I never finish songs that I’m writing.’ Then it’s like ‘What are you avoiding by not finishing a song?’. And for me, I’d never thought about this before until this point, I was like ‘I’m avoiding the song not being perfect and therefore feeling like not enough’. And just uncovering the deeper meaning of your fears and self-judgements and complexes and things like that.”
We got talking about a number of things then, bonding over similar appreciation for spiritual/energetic concepts and how not only powerful these things are but also how they cross over into creating as well as relating to others via intuition. So I wondered out loud about Jenna might deal with putting herself out there with some of these ‘weirder’ things, while also fully appreciating the beauty of being transparent and honest. She said “I have to feel very inspired I think to want to share. Like if I don’t feel safe or particularly passionate about saying something, I won’t say it. So I feel like this year I’ve been really quiet online whereas when I’m on tour and I’m in the flow and I’m like really practicing what I’m preaching every day, then I’m really happy to blurt out everything I’m thinking. But at the moment, I’m really enjoying being private. I guess what really encourages me to do it is when people really respond positively and say things like ‘I’ve never heard of what you’re talking about before, but it sounds really interesting’, or like ‘Thank you so much, I needed that articulated for me’. Yeah, that’s what keeps me engaged with the audience online is when I get that positive response, but also being okay with the fact that those posts get a lot less engagement, and it’s just something that I wouldn’t naturally care about but I guess I think my career has geared me towards caring what people think! And what people respond more to. But yeah, just learning as I get older that it doesn’t matter, because it reaches the people that it’s meant to reach.”
I wondered if being someone that’s relatively sensitive means that there could be a greater need to be vigilant about things like noticing changes in one’s mood, and body, and therefore more being protective of your space, and tending to self-care (as much of a buzz word that is lately…). Jenna said “Yeah, its actually feels cool to harness that and to have been a sensitive and highly emotional person my whole life but to be holding that more now. To know how to protect myself or to know very very firmly where my boundaries are, what I need and what I don’t appreciate. I feel like I’m getting a lot better grasp on myself. It feels awesome.”
Elaborating on that more, Jenna shared “My career has really exposed me to that. The make or break situation of being a sensitive person is like ‘How are you going to combat this? Are you just going to get crushed by everybody else’s feelings and needs and expectations of you? Or are you going to learn where your boundaries are and develop the confidence to express them and to say no?’.”
While challenging and scary, we agreed that boundaries were important, especially for creative people who may then be at risk of burning out and as a result creating nothing at all. And on this topic, Jenna shared that she was looking forward to creating again. She said “I’m excited to feel like I’ve harnessed enough and developed enough that I’m ready to share it again. I’m not judging the fact that I haven’t been able to do that this year, but I’m looking forward to inner extroversion again, knowing that it’s coming. It feels good actually.”
With the sun shining on this day and hearing the chirping of birds in the background on Jenna’s end, I farewelled this like-minded lady to enjoy the rest of her day, with our conversation swirling in my thoughts and genuinely leaving an inspirational mark.[Photo of Jenna McDougall courtesy of Ivan Souriyavong @ Good Things Sydney]