May 30, 2024

Mental health in the VFX and video game industries

The VFX and video game industries are known for their creativity, dynamism, and enjoyment. Nevertheless, like any profession, they entail pressures and stresses. Whether you're a newcomer or a seasoned professional, the demands of working in visual effects can be particularly intense, especially during crunch time, potentially affecting your mental well-being.

Maintaining good mental health is just as crucial as taking care of our physical well-being. However, mental health issues often don't show obvious physical symptoms, making them easier to overlook.

In the film and games industry, common triggers for mental health challenges include:

  1. Pressures from looming deadlines, both internal and external.
  2. Dealing with imposter syndrome.
  3. Struggling to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
  4. Feeling stuck on a shot, asset, or technical problem.
  5. Dealing with contract instability and visa renewal concerns.
  6. Facing challenges in breaking into the industry.
  7. Pouring effort into a project but not receiving credit.
  8. Lack of positive feedback about your performance.

Maxine Schnepf, CG Spectrum’s Career Development Manager, emphasizes the importance of prioritizing mental health:

"When you're stressed, burnt out, or feeling mentally drained, it's challenging to maintain productivity. This can result in creative blocks and hinder your ability to deliver on projects or be an effective team member. That's why it's crucial to take proactive steps to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Addressing mental health issues as they arise can be much more manageable."

Fortunately, there are numerous tools available for VFX and game artists to promote and sustain good mental health. And the best part? It's often simpler than you might expect!

15 Ways to prioritize mental health in the VFX and video game industries

1. Stay hydrated

Here's why it's crucial to meet your daily water intake of 2-3 liters: water is not just essential for survival, but for optimal functioning. Your body's vital chemical reactions, including the production of mood-regulating hormones like dopamine and serotonin, as well as stress-relieving cortisol, occur in water.

Increasing your water intake can combat fatigue, enhance concentration, and improve memory retention, almost like upgrading your brain's processing power!

During stressful periods, it's easy to prioritize caffeinated drinks over hydration, but here's how to incorporate more water into your routine:

  1. Begin your workday with a full water bottle on your desk, aiming to finish it by day's end.
  2. Develop the habit of drinking a glass of water alongside every coffee, tea, snack, or meal.
  3. If plain water doesn't appeal to you, infuse it with natural flavors like lemon, lime, mint, cucumber, or watermelon. Alternatively, invest in a Soda Stream for some fizzy refreshment!

2. Dress for success

With the shift to remote work for many game and VFX artists, it's easy for work and leisure time to blend together. However, maintaining a clear boundary between the two is essential.

Separating your work attire from your leisurewear can help your brain differentiate between work mode and relaxation. Psychologist Charlotte Armitage suggests that changing into work clothes signals a shift in mindset and focus, priming you for a productive day.

While the dress code in visual effects and gaming tends to be casual, it's still important to appear presentable, especially during client interactions.

Here are some simple strategies to maintain this boundary:

  1. Lay out your clothes the night before.
  2. Allocate distinct spaces in your wardrobe for work attire and loungewear.
  3. Consider implementing themed dress days at work to make dressing up more enjoyable and engaging for everyone.

3. Sit right

When you're deeply focused on your work, it's easy to adopt poor posture habits, whether you're leaning over a tablet, game console, or monitor, or slouching during long review sessions. Unfortunately, this can take a toll on your posture.

Maintaining good posture can help alleviate tension in your neck and shoulders, reducing stress and fatigue while enhancing concentration by allowing more oxygen into your lungs.

Here are some basic tips to improve your posture:

  1. Position your monitor at eye level and keep it about an arm's length away from your face.
  2. Ensure your feet are flat on the ground, and your knees are level with your hips.
  3. Keep your wrists and hands at or below elbow level.
  4. Avoid crossing your legs or ankles.

4. Move

Staying active can provide you with the extra energy needed to tackle tough challenges and promote better sleep patterns. Exercise boosts the circulation of oxygenated blood throughout your body, enhancing brain function and releasing endorphins that regulate mood while reducing stress and anxiety levels.

Professor Alex Parker, specializing in Exercise and Mental Health, offers some advice on maintaining physical activity:

  1. Begin by setting small, attainable goals that you're more likely to stick with.
  2. Track your progress. Utilize health apps to encourage exercise, visually track your advancement, and recognize the correlation between movement and well-being.
  3. Engage in activities you enjoy to make exercise feel less like a chore.
  4. Establish a routine and adhere to it, even during demanding periods.

You don't necessarily need a gym membership to stay active—get creative! Opt for the stairs over the elevator, dance to your favorite music in the living room, vigorously clean the house, play with your pet in the backyard, or even engage in some playful "weightlifting" with your toddler!

5. Sleep on it

As a VFX or video game artist, much of your workday may be spent waiting — waiting for dailies, client feedback, software licenses, updates, or renders on a full farm. This waiting often means that you only get to focus on your tasks towards the end of the day, leading to late nights and insufficient sleep.

Sleep is crucial for both your physical and mental well-being, much like water. Aim for about 8 hours of sleep per night. Quality rest aids in converting learning into long-term memories, regulating emotions, and bolstering your immune system.

Here are some pre-sleep practices to improve your sleep quality:

  1. Establish a wind-down period at least an hour before bedtime, minimizing screen time. Engage in relaxing activities such as reading, knitting, or taking a bath to prepare your mind for deep sleep.
  2. Avoid consuming high-sugar and caffeinated foods or drinks before bedtime, and establish a cut-off time for such intake.
  3. Maintain a consistent bedtime every night to allow your body to establish a sleep routine, making it easier to wake up in the morning.
  4. Minimize distractions in your sleep environment by setting your phone to flight mode, drawing curtains to block external light, and reducing noise levels.

6. You are what you eat

The food we eat significantly influences our emotions — the term 'hangry' exists for a reason! During long working hours, fast food might seem like the only option due to time constraints. However, a well-balanced meal provides much better and longer-lasting fuel for your body and brain compared to junk food.

Boost your concentration and mood by maintaining regular, healthy eating habits. While occasional treats are fine, ensure they're part of a balanced diet. Drinking water between meals can help alleviate hunger pangs. If only fast food options are available at work, consider discussing with your Manager or HR about introducing healthier choices.

7. Say it out aloud

Never underestimate the strength of expressing your emotions through words. Talking to someone can alleviate feelings of isolation and is instrumental in dismantling the stigma surrounding mental health.

Your support network can consist of various individuals, including family, friends, colleagues, managers, mentors, or therapists. Even if you feel mentally well, engaging in occasional conversations with a therapist can help you maintain that positive state of mind.

8. Get to know your cycle

For people with periods, understanding the different phases of your menstrual cycle can provide valuable insights into why you might be feeling a certain way. By pinpointing the root cause, you can address issues more effectively.

Beyond just emotions, the menstrual cycle can also impact general brain function. Surprisingly, this influence can sometimes be positive! Certain times of the month are associated with increased creativity and spatial awareness, among other cognitive functions. Being aware of your cycle can help you leverage these peak times to your advantage. Consider using apps like Clue and other free resources to gain a better understanding of your cycle.

If your period negatively affects your work, don't hesitate to have a conversation with your manager about it. Similar to discussions about mental health, openly addressing menstrual issues can help reduce stigma.

9. Break it down

When facing tight deadlines, your workload can seem daunting. Breaking down your VFX shots and assets into smaller, manageable tasks, much like creating a to-do list, can be a helpful solution. Research shows that breaking tasks down is linked to reduced anxiety.

Once you have your list, start with a small, achievable task. Completing this task will boost your mood and motivation by releasing dopamine, encouraging you to tackle slightly more challenging tasks.

For instance, let's consider lighting a complex shot. Begin by gathering relevant references to determine the lighting conditions of the live-action plate element, such as grey and chrome balls, IBLs/HDRIs, and defining key sunlight and ambient light.

Remember, progress in shots and assets may not be immediate. That's where to-do lists shine—they serve as a daily record of your accomplishments, reminding you that you're making headway. Plus, your Production Coordinator will appreciate it, enabling them to set a more accurate schedule with less intimidating deadlines.

10. Acts of kindness

It's true: practicing kindness doesn't just benefit others; it also boosts your own mental well-being and longevity!

Acts of kindness trigger the release of oxytocin, the "feel-good" hormone, which prompts the release of nitric oxide into the bloodstream. Nitric oxide relaxes blood vessels, reducing blood pressure and lowering the risk of various health issues and stress.

Kind acts can range from smiling at a passerby to donating to a charity you support. In the workplace, you can lend a hand to a colleague troubleshooting an issue or acknowledge their outstanding work. And remember, don't forget to extend kindness to yourself as well!

11. Social time

As social beings, human connection plays a crucial role in preserving our mental well-being. Social interactions offer avenues for expressing our emotions and sharing our feelings.

Allocate time for socializing with friends, whether it's grabbing a cup of tea in the break room or arriving a few minutes early to a review to engage with your teammates.

Additionally, prioritize socializing as a break from work, recognizing its importance in safeguarding your mental health.

12. Find passions outside of work

Whether your work is your passion or just a means to an end in the VFX and games industry, it's crucial to carve out time for other interests and hobbies.

Engaging in activities outside of work provides much-needed respite from career-related stressors and allows for a mental reset. Psychology professor Kevin Eschleman from San Francisco State University emphasizes the positive impact of pursuing hobbies on mental well-being, focus, and stress management. These benefits not only enhance personal fulfillment but also equip individuals to tackle workplace challenges more effectively.

13. Routine

Establishing a new routine is akin to installing a software update. It might take some time to adjust (and you might encounter a few glitches along the way), but ultimately, it leads to improvement. A routine reduces mental fatigue by providing predictability and alleviates anxiety about the unknown. Moreover, it ensures that you allocate time for breaks.

Studies suggest that it takes 21 days for a new habit or routine to become ingrained, so commit to it for those initial weeks. Incorporating healthy practices such as maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, engaging in regular exercise, and eating well is beneficial. Additionally, integrating mental-health-focused activities like mindfulness into your routine can be highly beneficial.

14. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness directs attention to the present moment and is commonly employed in treating depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Practices like yoga and meditation are associated with enhanced creativity, focus, and memory.

If meditation doesn’t appeal to you, there are alternative options:

  • Stretching: Engage in a fifteen-minute full-body stretching routine to relax your mind and body
  • Gratitude Exercise: Dedicate a few moments each day to list three things you're grateful for. You can incorporate this practice into your daily routine while brushing your teeth or showering
  • Journaling: Maintain a journal to promote mental rejuvenation and well-being.

15. Take a mental health day

When Maya crashes, and that pop-up window multiplies like tightly stacked dominoes across your computer screen, a restart is often necessary. Similarly, sometimes our brains function better after a reset.

Just as we need sick days, taking a mental health day can offer a chance to reboot. Ensure your managers are aware of the situation so they can provide support and arrange coverage for your work if needed, which also helps alleviate stress for everyone involved.

Next Steps

Careers in VFX or gaming can be high-pressure, but with the right strategies, they can be highly rewarding without the stress.

But, if you’re unable to shake that dark cloud, consider seeking out the guidance of your counselor, therapist, or psychologist. If you don’t have a therapist yet, pop into your local GP and they’ll be able to refer you to someone.

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