Dealing With Pressure: Stress Relief For Musicians

In an ironic turn of events, I became so anxious soon after participating in Shop Talk’s Dealing with Pressure: Stress Relief for Musicians that I couldn’t focus long enough to write this article addressing the same topic. Thankfully, I was able to put some good stress-relief tools to use (read on for details) and now, here I am.

If you’re interested in knowing anything about my history with depression and anxiety (and the role music plays), then check out this article I wrote called Let the Light In.

Musicians and Other Creatives are Prone to Stress, Depression, and Anxiety

Let the Light In. Photo by Trevor Richards.

If you’ve been following Of Music and Mind since the beginning, you’re familiar with our initial focus on musicians and depression. This has long been a topic of interest for me, and in our first year we devoted lots of time to research, surveys, and interviews on that topic. What we found out is that there are two parts to this.

  1. What draws us to become musicians and artists is the same thing that makes us prone to depression and anxiety. We go to music for catharsis, expression, and healing of those feelings.
  2. Music – and particularly the music business – makes us more stressed, depressed, and anxious.

What draws us to become musicians and artists?

If you’re a musician or an artist, you probably have a theory. Ours is that genetics play a huge role – particularly the genetic trait of high sensitivity. I’m not talking about emotional fragility, here.

There are four aspects of high sensitivity according to Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. Those with the trait of high sensitivity demonstrate these aspects more than those without it.

  • Depth of processing. Processing things differently and more deeply.
  • Overstimulation. Being aware of more stimuli and thus more easily overwhelmed by it.
  • Emotional responsivity (or empathy). Feeling things – good and bad – more deeply and having a wider range of emotional responses.
  • Sensitive to subtleties. Noticing more things on more levels.

What’s important to note is that people are born highly sensitive, they’re not born emotionally fragile. While, yes, sometimes those two descriptors will describe the same person, they are not the same. Emotional fragility can be changed to emotional strength. We can learn coping strategies and techniques, and we can build resilience.

Many people who are born with the trait of high sensitivity go to music and other creative work in order to process and sort out what they’re sensing and experiencing. They are often also depressed and anxious because of this sensitivity, and they want – and need – to process and express it creatively. Highly sensitive people find salvation in creation: creation is a healing salve to their overstimulated and over-feeling minds. On the flipside, it turns out that the stress and frustration of being a musician is not helpful! In fact, it is depressing and causes anxiety.

What stresses us out?

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A 2018 landmark study of musicians in the UK found that musicians are three times more likely to experience depression and anxiety. The study noted that many musicians are prone to depression and anxiety, anyway; but what they determined is that it’s the working conditions and the nature of being a musician that really made the difference.

The study by MusicMindsMatter cited poor working conditions, lack of recognition, physical impacts, and issues related to being a woman in the industry as leading factors. They noted lots more and our survey corroborated their findings.

Respondents to our survey on musicians and anxiety noted many stressors, namely:

  • Pressure to perform, practice, learn quickly, ooze creativity, succeed, compete, accomplish your music career goals
  • Not having enough time or money, struggling to balance music with more profitable work, desiring but not being able to live on music alone, lack of healthcare
  • Other people depending on you, having to “work” 24/7, being unable to take a break due to working several jobs or projects
  • Conflict and drama within the band and/or the music scene
  • Alcohol and drug addiction issues
  • Physical wear and tear on the body, disabilities, body image
  • Not being able to create or play music for any reason, being under constant critical feedback from self and others
  • Sexual abuse/harassment, bullying, racism, prejudice

We surveyed folks long before the idea of a pandemic, quarantine, or lockdown were even ideas, but specific to the pandemic we’ve learned of and experienced the following stresses:

  • Disrupted plans (recording, releasing, touring)
  • Loss of income
  • Dealing with fear and the unknown
  • Isolation from band members, the music community
  • Unable to connect (can perform but not to a live audience)
  • Conflict (internal and external) and judgment (by self and others) regarding personal or band stance on practicing, playing, etc.

As you can see, what makes us prone to depression and anxiety (our highly sensitive minds) can be a gift and it can be a curse. Music can be both our healing salve and our tormentor.

Musicians can effectively manage stress

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Sometimes I don’t believe that any of us can effectively manage stress. It doesn’t appear to be the case when you look around, and – most importantly – on bad days it doesn’t seem to be the case when I look inside. Despite this skepticism, I know deep-down that we truly can effectively manage stress; the thing is that it takes a lot of work.

Effectively managing stress is a full-time job. You have to tend to your stress on a daily basis, particularly if you suffer with depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns. That can feel overwhelming, but I can attest that the hard work is worth it – for you, your loved ones, your work, and your art. It gets easier with practice.

What we know is that day-to-day stress doesn’t cause depression and anxiety, typically; but it can exacerbate it. Over the past few months we’ve all been exposed to extreme amounts of stress (strained race relations, violence, pandemics, quarantines, fear, isolation, internal and external conflict, loss of income, change, hyperbolic media, hyper-negative social media, fighting, and so on). For many of us, these things have been traumatic or, at least feel traumatic. If you’ve experienced traumas in your past, what’s happening in our society now can be particularly triggering.

So what do we do?!

First and foremost, let’s be patient and compassionate with ourselves. It’s not realistic to expect that – during these stressful and restricted times – we’ll all be able to do the things we could do in order to take care of ourselves during regular times. But some techniques may still work.

How can musicians effectively manage stress?

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  • Play music. It’s a way to relax. It’s an outlet for expressing emotions. It allows us to focus on something positive. It can help us to connect with others, to form community, to be social (well, more so in regular times when we all can play shows and there’s no worry about getting together to practice). Even when playing by ourselves, it can be cathartic. It can foster a sense of self-worth. Write lyrics, compose music, focus on specific techniques, listen to or play new genres or types of music, challenge yourself with different styles, talk to other musicians about what they’re playing.
  • Move our bodies. Walking and yoga are particularly gentle and able to be done in some form or fashion by people of varying abilities and means; but any kind of movement will do. Cleaning your house (or someone else’s), playing with kids or pets, gardening, building something – these are all ways to move our bodies. When we’re stressed and depressed the last thing we want to do is exercise – there’s no motivation! If you can just make yourself do it for 5 – and then 10 – and then 15 minutes… it’s something and you’ll feel more accomplished and soon you’ll feel more motivated.
  • Eat healthy. Balanced, nutritious meals are crucial. Drink water. For those of us struggling with anxiety remember that caffeine, sugar, and carbs only make us more anxious. If lack of food is a problem for you or someone you know, check out our Resources page.
  • Change our perspectives. Mindfulness, gratitude practice, and meditation are all exceptional ways to practice changing our perspectives. Our minds are made to focus on the negative in an effort to help us survive. Thankfully, we can train our minds to look at things more positively. Here’s a thought experiment: If you’re feeling frustrated about not being able to release an album or tour right now, for example, think about all that you can do right now. Think about how delaying it may actually be positive, brainstorm new ideas, talk to other people, journal about it, channel the feeling into music. Read or watch videos looking at these things from different perspectives. It’s good to stretch your mind.
  • Reach out. This is particularly important if you live alone and are unable – for whatever reasons – to spend time with family or friends. Reach out via phone, internet, handwritten letters, video chat – whatever – to family and friends and people in your music community. I’m not very social and I’m very introverted, but even I admit that we all need social interaction. This is hard for me to do – it’s a push! – but it’s important. Reach out to people you don’t even know – especially if you need support. There are hotlines, text/chat lines, and ways to work with counselors via telehealth. Check out our Resources page for information.

Remember, there are unhealthy ways to cope too – so be on guard. Drinking too much and for the wrong reasons, overeating, spending too much time online, being mean to others (online or in real life) to “let off steam,” using drugs to cope, etc. These are neither healthy nor helpful, but they’re common and they’re easy. Try doing the healthy coping things and ask for help when you need it.

Musicians Can Relieve Stress Right Now

We’ve just talked about coping techniques and practices that will help you effectively manage stress … but those take time. We need things that can relieve our stress right now!

How can musicians relieve stress right now?

To relieve stress right now, we need to stimulate the parasympathetic wing of the autonomic nervous system. When we do this, we send calming, soothing, healing ripples throughout our bodies and brains.

A clear and thorough explanation of how this all works, and many useful techniques for stimulating our parasympathetic nervous systems can be found in the excellent book The Practice Neuroscience of Buddha’s Brain: Happiness, Love, & Wisdom by Rick Hanson, PH.D (2009). I highly recommend it.

What are some simple and effective techniques?

Try these as you read them. See for yourself whether they help you feel a bit calmer.

  • Touch your lips. Touching or rubbing our lips with our fingers, or pressing our lips together, stimulates parasympathetic fibers that are spread throughout our lips. We can do this anytime, and it’s not necessarily noticeable to others. (Yes, yes … if you’re using your fingers please wash your hands before and after.) This can also bring up soothing associations of contentment found with breastfeeding as a baby and eating or kissing, in general.
  • Exhale big (I mean big). Inhale as much as you possibly can, hold the inhalation for a few seconds, and then exhale very slowly while trying to relax your whole body. If you’re having trouble exhaling slowly, try exhaling through pursed lips (like you’re blowing out a candle). Doing this even once can help; but I like doing it three times for maximum benefit. Taking a big in-breath like this really expands our lungs which then requires a big exhalation in order to bring our lungs back to their resting size. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to calm and relax us. This is my go-to move when I’m having trouble sleeping thanks to a racing mind and tense body.
  • Set your heart metronome. I know, I know. It’s a good idea to practice to a metronome, but I don’t! Whatever! You don’t need a metronome for this. Breathe in and out naturally, but at the same intervals. For example, breath in for four counts and then breathe out for four counts – whatever feels natural and relaxed, just make sure it’s the same on the in-breath and the out-breath. Our heartbeats are not typically the same when we inhale or exhale. Our hearts beat a little faster on one or the other. This even, steady, metronomic way of breathing brings our heartbeat to a steadier rhythm which can create a profound sense of calm. Level up by sensing or imagining that you are breathing in and out of the area around your heart.

There are so many other quick and easy ways to relieve stress now that – as I’ve been promising for awhile – I’m going to make a full article about those. In the meantime, try the three above and see how you feel.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you like what we’re doing, support us by subscribing! Be well!

Friendly reminder: Of Music and Mind content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the assistance of qualified providers (such as some of those found on the Resources page) with any questions you may have regarding any medical conditions.