Hope & Help for Musicians With Panic Attacks and Anxiety Disorder
As a lifetime artist and performer, I’ve had extremely challenging experiences with panic attacks and anxiety in general. Here’s the story from the beginning, hope it helps you if this is your challenge too.
It started in the seventh grade, when I had a bout of the 24 hour flu. It was the first time I can remember throwing up. I got really sick and didn’t know I was going to throw up. It scared the hell out of me because my body was doing something totally out of my control. It was violent and kept going and going. I was ok in a few days and even played in a football game that weekend.
That seemed to have passed when I started getting panicky in restaurants thinking I was going to unexpectedly start throwing up in front of the people in the restaurant. This gave me “restaurant phobia” for the longest time. Beyond restaurants, I had problems like that at big family dinners and at movies with other kids. In social situations with my peer group, I was always terrified that I would embarrass myself by vomiting and then be completely excommunicated from my already very uncomfortable school situation with all the cool kid cliques.
That kept getting worse until my doctor put me in the hospital for a couple days for testing and discovered I had developed a peptic ulcer. I had to go on a bland diet which was wonderful fun for a 13 year old in an Italian household.
My Mom was fine with it but my Dad was on another planet. He couldn’t understand why I would be having anxiety about eating, He weighed over 300 pounds and eating was heaven to him. I’d go in restaurants with him and his construction buddies and not be able to eat for fear of a stomach upset or being intimidated by him for not eating everything on my plate. Maybe it also had to do with him beating the crap out of me many times when he couldn’t handle a rambunctious artsy kid.
My parents decided to send me to Summer camp and I was terrified about what my stomach would do stuck out in the country with camp food. To my surprise I never had the slightest problem eating and had a great time. Maybe getting away from Dad and the oppressive social situations of teenager-hood really helped me.
I was freaking out about going to high school too and that turned out to be the distraction I needed to get off the anxiety cycle. There was so much new going on that I temporarily forgot about worrying and started living a life away from my parents. I started playing guitar and the musicians took me in.
Everything was great until graduation time came at KSU. I started getting regular pressure from my Dad to join the family business and stop fooling around with music. He said if I got the business degree, he would help me get a music degree. So I went to BW on a partial scholarship and was doing fine until one day in a philosophy class when I was reading a report to the class and started losing it. All of a sudden, I got real shaky and barely got through reading the report. My anxiety spiked and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
I did my best to forget it but I knew something was up with me.
A few weeks later, I was selected to be a soloist at the BW Christmas concert. I didn’t know anything about this event and freaked when I walked on stage to a standing room only crowd many wearing tuxedos. It was a formal event and I slopped together an arrangement of Chestnuts that I never planned for a Carnegie Hall type of appearance. I started panicking right on stage and was shaking so bad I had to smack my hands against my leg to get them back under control. All I could think about was running off the stage, but somehow I started and played the worst performance of my life. I was really devastated and there was another performance later that day!
I tried to get myself together for the evening performance and did ok but I couldn’t let go of the fear of that situation happening again and me wanting to run away.
So now I was non-stop worrying about everything. I went to a party and some kids went on the roof of the dorm. I went up there and had to crawl back to the stairs because all of a sudden I was acrophobic. All kinds of new fears started showing up. I thought I was losing my mind and going crazy. My mind was so overwhelmed, I didn’t even feel real. I was questioning everything. It was a bad time in my life.
I tried talking to my parents and they being uneducated had no answers other than, “come home and join the family business”. My professors all made light of the situation and had no idea how bad my anxiety disorder was. My girl friend thought I was ridiculous. No help from anybody.
I had another big solo coming up and practiced until I could play the peace backwards and forwards. I was upstairs at the concert hall practicing when I saw my father and uncle enter the building, I took off and skipped the concert. I went home and hid. My family found me in my apartment and wanted to know if I was alright. I could tell my Dad was embarrassed and had little to say. I played the piece in front of them flawlessly. I just couldn’t handle the panic attack at the concert hall.
I thought for sure my playing career was over and I thought I was crazy.
I went to the family doctor who sent me to his nephew, a psychiatrist who had no inkling of how to handle anxiety problems. He had mostly big time neurotics and clinical patients who needed drugs. He gladly put me on twice a week visits which were mostly a very expensive baby sitting experience. Six years of “therapy” that was very uneventful.
I quit the conservatory and ran to the shelter of the family business. My Dad said just work two days a week and you can work on your music with the rest of your time. That was not what he had in mind. Within one year, I was pushed into full time work and music was way on the back burner. I was extremely unhappy and I had no way out.
I couldn’t go to God because Ayn Rand convinced me that all religion was a lie and that I should face facts and be an atheist. So, no help from parents, girl friend, friends, teachers, doctors and of course God, because he did not exist.
Something inside told me I wasn’t crazy and I needed to look for smarter people to help me. I scoured the library and found “Hope and Help For Your Nerves” by Claire Weeks, a british doctor who figured out that anxiety wasn’t a mental illness. Everything in the book fit me to a tee. All my physical and emotional symptoms were spelled out in detail. More importantly Dr. Weeks had a basic method for handling panic and anxiety and getting back to a normal life.
The basic premise of the book is that anxiety is normal, it’s just how handle it. Some people have more and some have less. Some lives are much more high stress and have more difficulty than others. Some of it is self imposed and some of it is just the luck of the draw.
A big thought that never crossed my mind out of the book is that much of this is the “fear of fear itself”. We worry that we can’t handle the fears that come so we spend a lifetime trying to run from fear, when fear is a part of all of us that cannot be eliminated.
The book got me facing my anxieties and getting desensitized. Every time I prepared for a concert and faced my anxiety, I got better. Claire Weeks four step formula was
4. LET TIME PASS
She also said that freedom was just on the other side of panic and that no panic attack can last past 30 minutes. This book was a ground breaker and pulled me out of trying to run away from my inborn anxiety tendencies.
Recently, Dr. Scott Bea of the Cleveland Clinic became a friend and introduced me to a new, more current book on anxiety entitled. The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety by Forsyth and Eifert. This book has the same idea as Claire Weeks but it’s more detailed and modern. Read both books. When you see how good they are, you’ll read them quickly.
After reading the Mindfullness book, I stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon for a couple of hours last year and had a great time. I was still scared but who wouldn’t be up 500 feet. I learned how to handle it and I’m so thankful I went.
Another thing I did was to get myself to positive healthy, intelligent people. Hanging around with negative people who practice self defeating behavior will weigh anyone down. I’m not saying throw out all your friends who need help, I ‘m saying don’t lay down in the dumps with them and find new friends that are admirable, inspiring people who motivate you.
I started with a new girl friend. I stayed with a depressive girl for six years and it didn’t help either of us. She broke up with me and did me a big favor. I relented in my atheism and prayed to God for a good girl friend and eventual wife and he sent me my one and only love, we’ve been married for over 30 years. She really helped turn me around. Instead of being afraid of restaurants, we started really enjoying them (too much). Instead of being afraid to fly, we have a ball travelling the world together. Get a good person to love, that’s #1 cure for you. If you can’t get a girl friend or boy friend, get some good pals who are positive upstanding individuals and be good friends.
If you’re having anxiety/panic attacks here are my thoughts/tips on what to do.
1. Make friends with God. Don’t let organized religion stop you if you object to this one or that one. Daily prayer and talking to God will help you beyond your dreams. God made you and he knows how to help you.
2. Daily Meditation. Learn how to meditate for 15 minutes everymorning. You can do centering prayer or any kind of relaxation meditation. This brings great peace and we all need this. We’re too busy, too hectic, we make our anxiety worse by never taking time to center ourselves. Study and learn to practice meditation.
3. Diet. You must eat healthy food at regular intervals. Don’t go all day without eating or wait until late to eat a big meal. So many things wrong with that I can’t go into here. All of the most successful people take time to refuel. Learn healthy food and eating habits.
4. Exercise and Rest. Simple regular cardio work daily. Take the time for a walk outside or on a treadmill. Cardio exercise knocks anxiety way down. Combine this with a proper sleep and rest regimen. Don’t think you’re superman and don’t have to have regular rest periods daily. Superman was a comic book hero, he definitely doesn’t exist.
5. Stress Management. Learn to recognize when you are having high stress periods. If you are always in high stress, you need to change something, a career, a job, a social situation, etc. Stress will kill you early and miserably. It will make you old before your time and miserable while you get there quickly. Read up on stress management techniques. They’re simple and all the top performers do it.
6. Love someone and be loved. Love is the joy of life the greatest thing we have and it’s free. Love your family and enjoy them. Spend time with them. You can’t be better at what you do if you don’t love and take time to love and be loved.
7. Face your anxiety personality. If you are a person that has a higher anxiety tendency and you are in situations that produce high stress, know this and face it. It’s ok. To do the things you want to do, you will have anxiety, unless you give up your dreams and accept hiding. If you are having a rough time and don’t want to face a big challenge, then take some time and work on your situation with the suggestions here and you will face your anxiety and it will become manageable. You must face it, accept it and take it with you while you enjoy the life you want.
8. Work on Happiness. If you are not happy, figure out why and do something about it. Change your life to what you want. If you are doing something to cause your unhappiness, fix it. If someone or something is causing you to suffer, fix it. If you do nothing, you will stay unhappy.
9. If you need a shrink, get one that is expert on anxiety disorder. They’ll check you out and help come up with a good plan for managing your challenge. If you need some medication to normalize and desensitize, do it. However, I’ve know some people whose Doctors let them have pills with no restrictions and became addicted to valium for no good reason. Try to accept and manage your anxiety without medication unless you have a diagnosed, clinical condition requiring medication. Sometimes just talking to a good understanding person will do what you need.
Tips for handling panic attacks on the spot.
- Many people think they are dying when they get the first panic attack. That’s common and normal. In my opinion, a panic attack cannot kill unless you have a heart problem or some other medical condition. It’s mostly an adrenaline shot that can make you feel very shaky and nervous. We get all kinds of symptoms in the body when it happens. Legs and arms feel funny, palpitations, some dizziness, legs feel like jelly, stomach nauseous, face flushed, hot, cold, on and on. If you get a physical exam have your heart checked and tell your Doctor you had a panic attack. They’ll check your heart and let you know how you’re doing. I’ve seen many guys go to the emergency room with a panic attack they thought was a heart attack. Get a physical and then stop worrying about panic hurting you physically.
- Recognize and accept the panic. Millions of people have this challenge. Treat it like a migraine that you don’t have to go to bed for. Tell yourself to keep going and it will be over soon and you’ll be free to do what you wanted.
- Breathe nice long slow breaths during the panic. Try not to breathe fast and hyperventilate. I like deep breathing real slow.
- If you can, go for a walk or do something that distracts you that you like. I’m not saying run away from the thoughts, just become involved in something else gently. The panic will go away and you’ll be fine. If you are stuck giving a speech or performance, accept the panic and concentrate on your task. You might have a rough performance, but the next time you have a panic attack it will be a lot easier. It gets easier each time until it you can handle it without great effort.
- Panics lasted me about 30-45 minutes tops. Usually when I just keep going, it subsides and I feel fine after. So it’s not going to be too long before your fine again. The mindfulness book says to ride the panic like a wave, it goes up and back down.
- Do your best not to keep worrying about panicking again. You’ll probably have some more, but not as many as you think. Do the management/life skills mentioned above and you will be able to eliminate them and forget about them.
- Everybody gets some kind of health/emotional challenge in life, this is just one of yours. Many creative, high powered people get this because they are so creative and imaginative. Learn to turn that magnificent mind into positive power and don’t let it run wild worrying about an infinite number of unrealistic thoughts. The mind is like a wild horse, left unattended, it can go in a million directions, rather, thinking needs to be cared for and developed properly.
Gaetano Letizia April 2015