It took Jewel a long time to create the toolbox of self-help techniques she uses today.
The singer-songwriter and Alaskan native left her abusive childhood home at 15 and eventually graduated from Michigan’s Interlochen Center for the Arts. But at 18, she became homeless and lived with mental health conditions like debilitating panic attacks and agoraphobia (a fear of places or situations). At times she was petrified to leave street corners, even for food.
Over time, she got help and developed coping techniques that helped her manage her mental health and get to the place where she is today: a Grammy-nominated musician, mother, author and actor. She relies on mindfulness, a practice where you stay grounded in the present moment through simple mental exercises. Research shows mindfulness can reduce anxiety and help benefit a person’s overall mental health. Jewel also relies on journaling as well as replacing negative self-talk with “antidote” thoughts to shift her mindset.
She also has dedicated substantial time and effort to helping others prioritize their mental well-being. The artist has spoken out about her experiences in the media in an effort to help fans dealing with the same mental health struggles. She launched the Inspiring Children Foundation to help at-risk youth, and has worked with the education sector to implement mindfulness and emotional intelligence curriculums in schools. In recent months, she also shared her advocacy on social media by hosting virtual mental health discussions with famous friends like Brad Paisley during the coronavirus pandemic.
HuffPost spoke to Jewel, 46, about how she transformed her life and the coping methods she still uses for her mental health today.
You realized you needed to protect yourself and moved out of home at 15, during which you said you also recognized the need to take care of your mental health. What prompted that at such a young age?
I knew kids like me repeat the cycle they’re raised by and didn’t want to become a statistic. We learn an emotional language in our home. Let’s pretend it’s French – if you don’t like French, you have to learn a new language or you’ll always speak French. With an emotional language, it’s not as easy. We don’t realize we’re learning an emotional language and there’s no school for relearning it, so I had my work cut out.
How did you start?
I started developing skills that were helpful, like watching people who had traits/behaviors I liked, writing them down, studying them and figuring out if I could adopt them.
You became homeless as a young adult after your boss fired you for refusing his sexual advances, all while simultaneously living with a mental illness. What did a really bad day look like during that period?
It varied, but severe anxiety, panic attacks, really negative self-talk, isolation. I didn’t have friends, community or family. I didn’t trust people. I became agoraphobic.
You also became addicted to stealing. What was that time like?
Every time I wanted to steal, I started becoming aware and observant of it — which is mindfulness, but that word wasn’t around then. I’d write down my thoughts and also watched my hands and took notes on what they did. I retrained myself out of stealing into writing. A neat side effect was my anxiety went away. Everything I was learning, I started writing about and my song “Hands” is about that exercise with watching my hands. I started writing songs and got discovered.
Massive success followed with your 1995 album, ”Pieces of You.” How did you ensure your wellness once things took off professionally?
I promised myself being a musician would be my No. 2 job and I took that very seriously. Music isn’t a healthy business, psychologically, yet we all want to be famous. Learning those [self-help] skills [remained a priority.] I just never thought the tools I developed would help me handle the amount of fame I experienced and eventual heartbreaks I went through.
And, now they’ve helped so many others …
I realized the skill sets I learned were teachable ... So, I started a youth foundation about 18 years ago. We help people ― often those who have experienced several suicide attempts, severe anxiety and depression ― and give them the mindfulness skills that helped me. Last year, 99% of our kids earned college scholarships. And on the Inspiring Children website, there are doable tools anyone can practice. The real trip is to see it all turned into a curriculum for public school children!
Wow. What’s one of the exercises you encourage?
Writing down the lie in your head is one of the exercises on the website. When you’re really anxious, write down that negative self-talk on a piece of paper, then write the truth on the other side. The truth will [help] you once you say it to yourself.
How has that helped you through a difficult moment?
I was on the first film I ever made and was really anxious. My friend was dying, I was in a high-anxiety state and had no idea what I was doing. I was not an actress and the lie that kept coming to me was, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” The antithesis is, “I know what I’m doing.” But that wasn’t the truth, so the trick is finding something that’s true. I played around with phrases until I came across, “I won’t quit until I learn,” which is very true about me. Once I said that, my whole body relaxed, so every time I started going into that negative self-talk loop, I would tell myself that and eventually started changing my neural wiring.
Many people are struggling with mental health during the pandemic and there are concerns about increased agoraphobia, which you’re familiar with. What advice would you give people?
The trick in helping people who might be developing habits that turn into agoraphobia, is to start asking yourself good questions. If you’re using your creativity to imagine the worst things possible, like “What if this happens?” you scare yourself. Channel that creativity and curiosity into a healthier direction by asking, “What do I want out of this experience?”
There’s two ways through this experience. One is introspection, death, rebirth and wisdom. To introspect — question what thoughts, beliefs, actions, friendships or relationships you want to let go of. What no longer serves you in your life? That’s the death part. The rebirth is about what new thoughts and concepts you want to adopt. Maybe you always wanted to learn to meditate or switch jobs. Figure out a way to make those items actionable, so that when we leave quarantine, we can keep ourselves accountable and gain wisdom. This can be an incredibly-transformative time.
The other path is suppression, fear, disempowerment and doubt. If you can’t let go of things, you hang onto them and fear. When you can’t adopt new ideas, you feel disempowered. And, when you can’t have wisdom, you doubt yourself.
Prioritizing mental health right now isn’t simple for everyone. Specifically for the Black community, where people are experiencing high rates of anxiety and depression. What would you say to those who are struggling and how do your mental health programs benefit people of color?
We [as white people] need to support the Black community in every way we can. The Black community is more likely to experience PTSD, having the highest prevalence after natural disasters and also from social upheaval and stress related to events like the death of George Floyd and police brutality. Black people are also misdiagnosed with more severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia, making their distrust of the mental health care system a justifiable fear. In general, they are undertreated and underserved by the medical community and receive less care for mental health, often not having accessible resources.
In my youth foundation, I work with many kids who come from traumatic backgrounds, the majority of whom are Black or kids of color. We encourage them to use the free tool kits [we provide], which have been [vetted] by a neuroscientist. There are also many Black-led, Black-run mental health foundations to aid the community that are informed and sensitive to the needs and cultural differences.
You’ve released your single “Grateful” during lockdown. What can we expect from the rest of your forthcoming album?
It’s the first record I’ve written from the ground up. I’ve always had thousands of songs, so just picked from my catalog. It was interesting 25 years later to write a record from scratch ― I wrote 200 songs to get 10 I liked! And 10 which are in the same style since every time I sit down to write, it’s a different style. The record took on ’70s, soul and old R&B vibe.
Your album “Pieces of You” recently turned 25. How do you feel when you hear songs like “Foolish Games” today?
I’m proud and fortunate the record did so well. It was deeply validating for a kid who had gone through so much to have such an amazing fan base who supported me for who I was ― I didn’t have to change. The fans have been with me since. It’s a tremendous blessing and changed my life forever.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.