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Live Music After the Pandemic

The psychology behind the anxiety so many experience at shows post-pandemic
Maggie Rogers (Photo Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Maggie Rogers recently shared a TikTok discussing the increase of audience members passing out and experiencing panic attacks at her live shows during the tour for her sophomore album, Surrender. But why are audience members experiencing this upsurge in anxiety? 

As someone who has struggled with anxiety my entire life, live shows were the one social space where I felt able to relax, be myself, and connect with people I normally would be too shy to talk to. We unapologetically sing the lyrics of our favorite songs to the band members and each other, potentially never to cross paths again after that night, but cherish the memories made while enjoying a live concert and venue environment. 

Cut to the mid-pandemic era: I’m locked up in my house, frantically searching for any Instagram-live concerts so I can get a small taste of the live experience that I, and others like me, have missed so dearly. My home became the stereotypical jail cell with the number of days that I had been in confinement scratched all over the walls, desperately counting down to when I could dance with strangers again. 

While we all got a taste of our own solitary confinement when lockdown began, it seemed that suddenly everything was falling apart and we were forced to make the choice to stay isolated for our safety. There is scientific evidence that isolation of this nature has severe negative effects on our mental health and brain chemistry—specifically the amygdala, a small, yet powerful, part of the brain, sometimes called the ‘Emotional Brain’. 

This little wonder of biology, the amygdala, increases its activity in response to isolation and can actually heighten our fear and anxiety—symptoms prisoners in solitary confinement often suffer. “It’s an increase of the uncomfortable experiences and a decrease of the comfortable ones in the sense that social connection leads to increases in love hormones, like oxytocin,” says Dr. Newman of Amber Health, formerly Borer Newman. The required public physical and social lockdown that I and the rest of my surrounding communities underwent greatly reduced our potential for social interactions. Mass quarantines decreased our levels of oxytocin, increased amygdala activity, and led to further anxiety and depression. 

Cut to post-pandemic: It’s 2023, the world has been out of lockdown for a while now, and I’m buying tickets for every show I can afford, just for the opportunity to once again connect with strangers and make memories. These days, when I arrive at a show full of anticipation, things feel like they could be going back to normal, except for the tight knot in the pit of my stomach. The one that won’t disappear, no matter how much I push it away. At a certain point, the knot rises into my chest, pressing onto my lungs to the point of causing pain. The beginnings of panic bubble up and I feel helpless and angry. Why here? Why now? This is supposed to be another magical night, but instead, I’m overwhelmed, and I can’t breathe. Live music used to be the way I connected with people, but now, I can barely make eye contact with anyone. Even the thought of approaching someone or being approached by a stranger makes me feel faint and dizzy. Why?

When you take humans—who are social mammals—out of a social context, we do not function very well. “Every marker for risk of health goes up when humans are isolated,” says Dr. Newman. “Increased risk of heart disease, stroke, immune system declines, blood pressure increases, levels of anxiety and depression increase.” For the past three years, we’ve been bombarded with misinformation, fear-inducing news reports, and life-threatening experiences all while craving social intimacy, even if it came at a cost. But suddenly, the thought of going back to crowded spaces isn’t so appealing. It’s only in the last year that mask mandates have been lifted and we’ve gathered in public spaces again. I find myself agreeing with Maggie Rogers when she says, “Concerts may not be the most natural space after the couple of years we spent in the pandemic.” It also explains why I left a few shows early this past year, something I’ve rarely done in the past, but I felt incredibly uncomfortable in a packed venue.

It’s not just fans either, artists too are experiencing increased anxiety, according to Dr. Newman. “I see it in so many of my patients who had a really hard time walking back on stage after the pandemic. I think what happens is because we’re social mammals, we are so sensitive to the context that could be rejecting us…It’s like we all became agoraphobic…and it’s not just about being in a vast space, it’s about being in a space that is filled with people,” Dr. Newman explains. As I’ve emerged from lockdown, the reality of social rejection is overwhelming, as if my social muscles went into atrophy while I was tucked away in my house with my cats.

But we still want to go to shows, right? And these bars, theaters, and stadiums are packed to the gills with hungry music fans looking for their next live music fix. So, how do we take care of ourselves? The key is proactivity, not reactivity. “The way you start taking care of yourself in a challenging or an anxiety-prone moment is not in that moment, it’s well in advance,” says Dr. Newman. If you experience high levels of anxiety, like me, take action before you’re in a crowded space. 

Therapy is the number one resource here, but that’s not financially possible for everyone. Meditation is another great tool, and there are so many free meditations on YouTube or meditation apps, you’re sure to find one that works for you. Practice listening to your body, mindful breathing, and other tools that help you to relax. The first thing to recognize is that the symptoms of anxiety aren’t actually threatening. “Our brain interprets [anxiety] as ‘oh no, we’re under threat’, but the truth is, it’s not,” says Dr. Newman. The feeling of anxiety is almost always worse than the reality of the immediate experience, and if we can lean into those moments and acknowledge what we’re feeling, it’s possible for the anxiety to move through our body without consuming us.

Another important tip, which cannot be overstated, is talking about what you’re feeling. Lean on your friends, tell them you’re feeling panicky, and ask for help. There is a strong taboo around discussing mental health but breaking the status quo can save lives and open the conversation so we can more easily express our basic needs. If you’re at a show alone, text or call someone you trust and explain what’s going on. If you’re with a friend, talk about boundaries in advance, and make an exit strategy in case one of you gets overwhelmed. Above all, we need to be patient with ourselves as we adapt to this new experience. We’ve been out of practice when it comes to social situations and our social muscles need time to strengthen. Follow Rogers’s advice, “do everything you can to keep everyone safe and healthy around you.” And above all, take care of yourself. We’re in this together.