Under Stress? Here’s What to Do…

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume CVI, No. 2February, 2006

Caroline L. Werner

Are you stressed out? Do you feel tense? Or overwhelmed? Me too. As I write this article, I’m stressed out about making my publication deadline and the half dozen other things on my “to do” list. Perhaps you were recently stressed out about finding a date for Valentine’s Day, or about your New Year’s resolutions (see this column in January’s Allegro), or the gig you’re playing on Friday (or the gigs you’re not playing!), or money, or your kids, or whatever. The point is, everyone experiences stress


Hans Selye, commonly believed to be the first person to identify the concept, explained that stress is the body’s response to any demand made upon it. By definition, not all stress is bad. Stress can help us get through a performance or writing an article. It can be the result of good things like a marriage or birth of a child or not so good things (I know I don’t need to list examples of these). It is our response to these demands that makes us feel stressed.

Managing stress requires examination of the areas of stress in our lives. I like to think of stress as a problem to be solved. If we don’t identify the problem, it will be more difficult to find a solution. Therefore, the questions to ask are: What are our stressors (the things that cause us stress) and what are our stress reactions (the symptoms that result from stressors)? 

Musicians have stressors that others may not. For example, anxiety surrounding auditions and performances as well as the self-critique that often follows those events, fluctuations in ability to obtain work and the ensuing financial pressures, competition with colleagues for the same gigs, maintaining relationships with friends and family while working nights or on the road, and being surrounded by drugs and alcohol in the workplace. Again, each of these stressors is a problem with potential solutions.

Reactions to stress vary among individuals, but are experienced by everyone. Physical signs of stress include a weakened immune system, tiredness or difficulty sleeping, racing pulse, muscle tension, gastrointestinal problems, excessive sweating, excessive urination, rashes, headaches, or clenched teeth.

These symptoms may be caused by something other than stress, and therefore biological problems should be ruled out. Psychological signs of stress include worry and anxiety, irritability, impatience, feeling overwhelmed, difficulty concentrating and anger.

Stress can have significant consequences if left unmanaged. The symptoms or stress reactions can worsen. Stress can rub off onto others. Stress can make it on stage and interfere with one’s ability to perform. By taking steps to problem-solve, and by increasing wellness and reducing stress, we can have many positive outcomes, be it establishing a better environment in which to create music, improving our interpersonal relationships, or enjoying life more.

In addition to problem solving, leading a healthy lifestyle can reduce stress. Where can we make healthier choices? What can we do to increase our wellness so we spend less time being sick and have increased energy? Getting more sleep and exercise, reducing caffeine intake, and eating better are good places to begin.

Other things we can do to reduce stress include learning relaxation techniques such as breathing, meditation and visualization, as well as improving skills for coping with worry, anxiety and anger.

Here are some quick stress management tips:

  • Try to arrive at your destination a few minutes early. This will allow for time to transition from one agenda item to the next.
  • Plan time in your schedule where you don’t have anything to do. You can use this time if some agenda items run longer than anticipated, otherwise use the time for yourself.
  • Alter your lifestyle. Build in time for exercise, relaxation, and “you time.”
  • Live in the present. Worrying about the past uses a lot of energy and you can’t change what has already occurred anyway. Focus that energy on what needs to be accomplished today.
  • There are many good books on stress management. Two that I like are “The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook” by Martha Davis, Matthew McKay, and Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, and “Stress Management for Dummies,” by Allen Elkin.

If you are interested in exploring how to increase wellness and reduce stress, consider participating in a group being facilitated by the Musicians’ Assistance Program. This group will examine stressors, stress reactions and stress relievers from the musician’s perspective. In addition, we will be examining the ways in which we contribute to our feelings of stress. By gaining a new perspective on these feelings, we will learn to better cope with stress. We will be meeting on Monday afternoons for 8 sessions between March 13 and May 1. If you are interested in joining this group, please contact the MAP office.

Caroline Werner is the social work intern at the Musician’s Assistance Program. MAP office hours are Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9:30 to 5. Call (212) 397-4802 for an appointment.