What to do when you’re stressed

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume 112, No. 3March, 2012

Cindy Green, LCSW

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.

We all know that the life of a musician can be wildly unpredictable. One moment there can be plenty of gigs, and then in the next moment, there may be no work for weeks. The erratic nature of our business is a perfect breeding ground for stress and it can manifest itself in a variety of ways. You can end up feeling overwhelmed, anxious, depressed or just run down. Recognizing the symptoms and choosing how we manage stress can make all the difference.

Stress can often seem second nature to us; it’s what we’re used to feeling so it’s not always easy to recognize what’s going on. You may notice that you’re feeling agitated or angry, overly emotional or just restless.

The other end of that spectrum is a slowed down response: feeling depressed, withdrawn or sluggish.

Sometimes, you might simply feel that you’re in a frozen or paralyzed state.

Many of these feelings happen to all of us at one time or another, but if you notice that these symptoms are increasing in frequency or there are more feelings than usual, you should consider taking steps to remedy these stress responses.

Cognitive symptoms affect our thinking functions. You might find you have trouble concentrating or you have racing thoughts. Perhaps you become more forgetful or suddenly use poor judgment.

Physical symptoms occur in our bodies. Aches and pains, digestive problems, nausea and dizziness, chest pain and shortness of breath are all common.

Emotional symptoms can include mood swings, irritability, feeling overwhelmed or generally unhappy.

Behavioral symptoms might appear as changes in appetite or sleep patterns, social isolation, procrastination or an increase in nervous habits (like nail biting).

During these vulnerable times of stress, it is not unusual to see an increase in drug and alcohol use, which can all too easily lead to an unhealthy cycle, as drug and alcohol use will only compound the negative feelings you are already experiencing.

Noticing changes in your functioning in terms of cognitive, physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms is the first step in easing the stress in your life. Once you can point them out, you can begin to address what coping skills you can put into place.

Being organized is key. Coordinate all scheduled events and jobs and keep track of your time commitments. Chances are your cell phone has a free calendar application; use it. If not, pick up a good old fashioned date book. Managing your time is important, as is managing your space. Having things you need readily available will help you spend less time looking for them thereby decreasing stress levels. Use your computer – it has a wide variety organization programs available. Also file folders and binders can help with documents and sheet music.

One of the easiest ways to manage stress is something we do all the time: breathing. This adds oxygen to your system which almost instantly triggers relaxation. When you start to notice feelings of stress or anxiety, stop for a minute, be still and take some deep breaths. You can proactively plan to spend 30 seconds or so throughout the day consciously breathe. The beauty of this is that you can do it anywhere and almost any time.

For anything more than a 30 second breathing exercise, it can seem impossible to find time to engage in pleasant activities. However, these pursuits are essential in managing stress. Think about things you enjoy doing. Take some time each day to engage in activities that will bring you joy. Find a few minutes here and there to take a walk on a nice day, have your favorite healthy snack or watch your favorite TV show. Make sure to schedule these activities into your day. If you don’t make a conscious effort, they’re less likely to happen.

Knowing yourself and your limits may be the most important way to manage stress effectively. Setting boundaries helps you take control of your time and your feelings. If you’re already really busy, then maybe “no’ is the right answer.

Although it can be challenging, striving to live a healthy life will help you manage your stress.

  • Eat a balanced diet, low in fat and carbs

  • Get a good night’s sleep, 7-8 hours is ideal

  • Exercise regularly, even a walk around the block is better than nothing

Stress should be talked about – holding it in doesn’t anything to manage it. Friends and family can be good sources of support.

Of course, as always, the MAP office is a confidential option for help identifying stress and making a plan to manage and its effects. We will help you evaluate your situation, identify the stressors and come up with coping skills that make the most sense for you.

Call us at (212) 397.4802 or e-mail us at And keep in mind, you can always consult with us proactively, before the symptoms become too overwhelming. Don’t hesitate to use us as a resource.