Is anxiety stopping you from performing your best as a musician?

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume 115, No. 4April, 2015

Siena Shundi, LCSW-R
Siena Shundi, LCSW-R

Siena Shundi, LCSW-R

It’s well known in the industry that musicians are their own biggest critics. Somewhere along the line, you may have had a tough music teacher. Or maybe your family put pressure on you to succeed. Perhaps your own passion and drive to perfection may lead you to constantly evaluate how you’re performing. You’ve likely became a professional musician at least in part from these qualities – plus a lot of perseverance! However, if not kept in check, anxiety or pessimism or perfectionist thinking can interrupt your creativity or even distort your overall experience. And the state of the industry right now doesn’t help. Auditions can be scary. Many professional musicians are fighting for substitute spots in orchestras. Working in a club is a constant process of negotiation. Technology and commerce are constantly complicating the business. Many of you feel the competition and are constantly wondering, “What do my fellow musicians think of my talent?”

Collaborating and getting critical feedback has real value in the music business. But how do you manage the pressure of finding and maintaining work when you’re constantly looking over your shoulder? Although you have very little control over how the business is changing, you do have control over how you think about your feelings. Therapists call it “mentalization” – the ability to have insight into your feelings enough to keep your fears from escalating to dark and unnecessary places. The first step is identifying what you have control over versus what you don’t. That is, what changes can you make that could reduce your stress – and what events that are beyond your control? I often encourage clients to make a list of all their stressors and pressures, circling the ones they have control over. For example, one of my clients was feeling overwhelmed by how busy he was. He wasn’t sleeping enough, was plagued by social anxiety and wasn’t able to compose. He had a full-time job in academia but was also doing a great deal of freelance work because his full-time gig wasn’t creative at all. When he looked deeper at why he took on so much, he realized some of this behavior was related to a long history of feeling pressured to perform by both his family and in particular by one very competitive and borderline abusive teacher during his formative years. We discussed scaling back on projects that didn’t pay at all or that he really wasn’t that interested in so that he had the space and time to be mindful of his choices and motivations. After some time he felt much less pressured and began writing again.


Many therapists use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help clients understand how feelings, thoughts, and behaviors influence and are connected to each other. When we spend too much time obsessing or worrying about whether we will keep a job or not, it doesn’t change the outcome. If anything, it just robs us of our energy, leaving us feeling defeated regardless of the outcome. The good news is that this cycle can be reversed. If we can reframe our negative thoughts and identify what we are doing that’s contributing to our stress, then we’ll have more energy for what is actually within our control. For example, a while back I spoke with a musician who was feeling overwhelmed by pressing bills at the same time as his first big show. He repeatedly obsessed about how if he didn’t make enough money, he would lose his apartment. He was having a very difficult time focusing on the details of the necessary fundraising for his project. We discussed that some of his anxiety was healthy in that it was good he was concerned about paying his bills. However, he was losing his ability to problem-solve. I helped him to re-assess each problem separately and challenge some of the “what if’s.” For example, if he didn’t make enough money to keep the show going, what would he do? Did he feel like he could, in reality, make the show successful? Did he want to keep his apartment? He ultimately realized that he felt confident in being able to put on a good show. Once we were able to help him clarify his goals and reframe his thinking, he was able to stop operating out of anxiety. Happily, he fundraised effectively and had a successful show, and some of his financial problems dissipated!

Other than reframing our thoughts, there are three main ways to manage milder forms of anxiety or depression: distraction, lifestyle changes and seeking further support. Distraction involves changing your behavior or your environment to reverse and lessen the effects that negative thinking has on your mood. Distraction can stop the spiraling. Examples include getting out of the house and going for a walk, listening to music, watching a movie, calling a friend, doing some exercise, or even trying some basic mindfulness. Ask yourself, what do your feet feel like planted on the ground right now? Notice the sounds around you. What’s the temperature in the air right now? Notice your breath. All of these techniques are similar to the practice of insight meditation.

Lifestyle changes involve going to the doctor and getting a physical to assess your overall health. Do you sleep enough? Do you eat nutritiously? Do you need to quit smoking or drinking? Do you have enough social support? All of these health and lifestyle issues can significantly affect stress.

If you are having trouble getting started, contact the MAP office to speak with a clinical social worker. We can assess you personally and make referrals if needed. And take heart – you’re not alone. Many musicians feel the same way that you do. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

The office of the Musicians’ Assistance Program is your one-stop shop for musicians’ health. We offer counseling – both one-on-one and in groups – as well as information on all kinds of social services, including health insurance, food stamps and more. All services are free to Local 802 members. Contact us at or (212) 397-4802.