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Large Crowds: How I Cope With Anxiety at Music Festivals

By Cat Brewer | Sweatpants & Coffee Correspondent

The beats are so hard they make your body vibrate. Swarms of people, shoulder to shoulder, move around the grounds to get to from one stage to the next. They sway hip to hip to the music of Michael Franti as he films a music video right in front of me. It’s loud and I am thankful for the earplugs in my ears. I’ve been waiting a long time for this opportunity—three days with more than 60 different bands at Bottlerock 2015 and I have access to them all! That is, if I don’t let my anxiety get the best of me.

Concert-crowd

Rewind to 2013 when I experienced my first large music festival; it was anything but a typical concert. I went with a friend, Joan, who had an inside connection to OutsideLands in San Francisco, and who had been going to the festival for years. Thanks to her connections, we got the royal treatment, which included VIP parking inside the park (not trying to maneuver through the crowded streets of folks exiting Lyfts or Ubers and walking what seemed like miles to the park).

Once inside, I followed my friend around like a lost puppy for the first half of the day. We got to hang out in the backstage area reserved for the concert promoter and his friends. Yeah, not every day you see members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers perched on luxurious couches eating, drinking, and visiting with people. We also went to the VIP concert section for the folks who paid a pretty penny for plush seating and a full-service bar with food. Ever have a Jameson & ginger ale served to you by a hot, shirtless bartender? I have!

When performance time hit, I had the lay of the land; any anxiety I had previously felt dissipated as I went to the VIP concert section (can you say leaning up against the stage?), and onto the scaffolding onstage to watch Hall & Oates and, later, Young the Giant, perform, from my bird’s eye-view. Of course, this is not the norm for the general ticket-holder. And although I’ve been a concertgoer since I was nine years old—I used to wait in line in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk outside Wherehouse and Tower Records to buy lawn tickets to NKOTB concerts—this was the first time I’d ever experienced a full-on festival, especially with all this VIP treatment. I was grateful that Joan provided me the opportunity and was there at the beginning to keep me from freaking out over all the sights and sounds. But it hardly prepared me for a “normal” music festival.

So imagine my anxiety when I walked into BottleRock festival in Napa two years later (after walking two miles from one of the $40 parking lots) as a general admission ticket holder to my first big music festival—solo.

I was completely overwhelmed. In fact, I felt stuck—paralyzed. I physically could not move, my breath quickened, and I felt flushed from the inside out. I had felt inklings of this feeling before, as I planned solo trips to Vietnam and Thailand; as I stood on the beach in North Carolina before taking my first stroke at an Ironman triathlon. I’d felt waves of foreboding as I planned my own personal concert line-up for BottleRock on my phone app, and, again, while I’d made the 40-mile drive to Napa.

But, there I was inside the festival, on the verge of a full on panic attack. To call it “overwhelmed” felt like an understatement. I’m generally an outgoing person (I’m a public speaking instructor and a spin instructor), but I sometimes experience mild anxiety in large crowds or when I attend an event alone. In my communication courses, I teach about anxiety and how to get through it in relation to giving speeches, but I hadn’t thought how it applied to me at this festival.

An estimated 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety disorders, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. That’s a whole lotta people feeling stuck! And what are you supposed to do for it? Some folks treat with medication, behavioral therapy, positive intrapersonal communication, or a combination of all three. What was I supposed to do in my moment of anxiety?

I looked around for a place to sit among all the people—thousands of people, roaming freely and happily around the area. I decided I needed a pep talk—the same talk I give to my communication students before they give a speech. I sat on the ground in an out-of-the-way location and proceeded to talk to myself, using my inside voice.

“Most of these people won’t even notice you since they’re so busy enjoying themselves; you can enjoy yourself, too! There really is nothing to be afraid of—they’re just people and I totally give you permission to ask for directions if you get lost or turned around in this big-ass place. And if you don’t like it after 30 minutes, you can leave. Okay, 20 minutes—same rule you practice for cardio. And, hey, pushing through this fear (which I define as False Evidence Appearing Real) is way less frightening than sitting here feeling helpless. Just do it. You can do it. Believe you can and you will.”

When experiencing anxiety, inaction is the worst. I’ve felt this thousands of miles away in new countries and at home in the San Francisco Bay Area. So I stood up, brushed the dirt off my ass and started walking—okay, wandering. The first place I found was a coffee stand. I bought some coffee and people-watched. Everyone was friendly; most replied “hello” in response my greetings. I studied my map and show-times and finally made my way to the first of many stages.

The first band I watched was Public Enemy and they got the crowd moving. Then Michael Franti performed and the crowd was in love with him and each other. And it didn’t stop there. I became bolder in action and as the anxiety dissipated I watched American Authors, interviewed EchoSmith, snapped shots of Snoop in action from the media pit after he helped with a cooking segment, listened to Finish Ticket, ZZ Ward, and caught ASL interpreters signing the show for No Doubt.

And, no doubt about it, I’ll be back again this year, ready to put my anxiety in check and groove to some good tunes at Bottlerock 2016. I can’t wait to see Chili Peppers, Florence and the Machine, Lenny Kravitz, and Stevie Wonder.

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Cat Brewer will be Sweatpants & Coffee’s boots on the ground at BottleRock 2016, the New Orleans Jazz Festival, Kaaboo and hopefully Outsidelands.
Cat Brewer is producing the documentary Sign the Show on Deaf culture and entertainment. She is a communication studies instructor, advocate, lover of all things music and comedy, and an Ironman triathlete. She is always hopeful and claims to be rescued by two Pitbulls.

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