A battle between music and anxiety

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The orchestra are tuning up and I’m settling in to my seat. It’s been a busy week, a busy month, but I’ve finally found time to take a break. I don’t really hear the first piece but maybe that’s just because I’ve not calmed down from the day. I’m here for the second piece anyway. The music begins but it’s hard to listen and I’m starting to feel hot. I’m trying to pay attention and focus in on the music, but I’m sure I’m going to be sick. I need to cool down but it feels like I can’t control my arms to take off my jumper, and the room is starting to spin. I manage to pull myself together enough to run outside. I have no idea if the door slammed on my way out. All I know is that music usually helped me to relax, but now my body felt like I was under attack.


I’ve fallen out with music a few times in my life. Sometimes the spats were small, like in my second year at University and I needed a break from my studies. Music won me back when I got a free ticket to a concert that included Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique played by a period orchestra and I heard it in a whole new way. Sometimes other people changed my relationship with music: an ex-boyfriend made me feel silly because my favourite pieces didn’t include any Bach, and I tried to love music differently but had to go back when I remembered to pay attention to my own feelings and my own taste.

Sometimes the disagreements were bigger. I was unhappy in a classical-music-based job, so I shied away from the music I loved. Listening to orchestral or chamber music made me think of work and I found it hard to dissociate the music itself from those feelings. The only way I managed was by playing in an amateur orchestra, getting to grips with music in a different way, from the inside out. I can still remember the moment in the middle of a rehearsal, taking in the sound of the musicians around me and realising: ‘Work can’t take this away from me.’

And of course there’s the time I dropped out of music college. Realising the life of a performer wasn’t for me, after a few miserable months I gave myself permission to leave. I packed my clarinet into its case and didn’t play for 10 weeks, which felt pretty drastic considering at college I’d been playing for around 6 hours a day. When I came to play again the keys felt alien beneath my fingers, but I managed to regain the joy by playing in a wind band run by an old school teacher with some old friends. It reminded me why I loved playing in the first place and why I loved sharing music with other people.

But the time I fell out of love most dramatically, neither me or music were to blame. I’d been diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder about 8 months before, following a spate of panic attacks which mostly occurred when I had to travel to new places, eat in unfamiliar restaurants or meet new people (sounds like fun, doesn’t it?!). I was exhausted all the time, but I knew one of the things I could rely on to take me out of my anxiety-ridden mind was music. In a recital, concert or an opera, my mind would be absorbed enough to block out any panicked thoughts that usually convinced me I could be physically sick at any moment. I could sit and let the music wash over me, and usually I only had the energy for my mind to focus on the music in front of me.

And then I had to run out of that concert. I was in a familiar place (the Royal Albert Hall), it was a fantastic orchestra (the Berlin Philharmonic) and a piece I loved (Mahler’s Seventh Symphony). What should have been a brilliant experience instead led to more miserable months as my mental health had destroyed my refuge. It may sound hyperbolic, but I felt betrayed. Every time I went to a concert, I’d panic that I was going to be ill. I tried and tried again, but each time was more mentally draining that the one before. Instead of listening to the music, I’d have to use coping tactics to be able to even stay in the room: I’d pick my favourite haircut from players in the orchestra; I’d concentrate so hard on reading programme notes that I couldn’t hear the music; I used the 5-4-3-2-1 method to bring myself back to the moment. Before, an opera overture signalled excitement, the beginning of a drama-filled night of throwing myself into the performance. Now, I spent most of them doing breathing exercises to slow down my heart rate, and convincing myself that it I would enjoy the experience if I could just stop myself from thinking about running away. I would manage to stay in the concert halls, but would leave feeling drained and usually unable to even remember what I’d heard.

I avoided taking medication to get through it because it made me feel sleepy and numbed my senses, which felt just as pointless as feeling panicked. There were some practical solutions: I found that sitting in an aisle seat helped (I felt more relaxed knowing I would cause minimum fuss if I did have to run), as well as taking my seat in plenty of time and reading a book before the concert started. Plus the usual anxiety tricks like avoiding sugar, caffeine and alcohol, and making sure I got enough exercise and sleep. Eventually I’d be able to concentrate for the first movement, or I’d be able to focus for the whole second half of a concert. It was so wonderful to have those clear moments with the music again. Even though anxiety had affected me in other ways and stopped me doing other things, it wasn’t my life without live music.

I wish I could say there was an easy, convenient solution to this. Working hard and chipping away slowly at mental health issues doesn’t sound like a happily-ever-after. But that’s what I had to do. I kept going and going to performances until I could convince my irrational mind that I wouldn’t need to run away. Sometimes the anxiety still makes itself known but now I can cope with it. Of course it helps going to things with lovely friends who understand that I might need to sit in the end-seat today, or that some days it might not seem to affect me, and who know that I’m not putting this on for attention. In fact many are women my own age who have experienced similar things and have suffered from anxiety themselves.

Music and I have made up again, and it’s made my appreciation stronger. Music doesn’t have expectations of me, it doesn’t mind if my anxiety makes me prickly, or seem shy or arrogant, or unengaged. It doesn’t need me to talk about how I’m feeling, or mind if I’m tired, or get annoyed if I’m grumpy. And probably most importantly for my anxiety, I don’t think it expects me to turn up and be perfect. I now know how to be even more in the moment and really listen and enjoy, which feels all the more important when it could be taken away – even if it’s your own mind that’s stopping you.

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