How Learning an Instrument as an Adult Helped Me With Brain Fog and Anxiety

During the pandemic, I tried meditation, exercise and sleeping more—but it was learning to play the guitar that ultimately brought me calm.

I never truly understood the crippling effects of anxiety until March of 2020. As the global pandemic set in and the world I knew seemingly crumbled around me, my feelings of fear and apprehension became a constant. Whether I was busy at work or relaxing with my roommates, I felt a heaviness in my chest and an uneasiness in the pit of my stomach. 

And then came the brain fog. 

It was as if someone had turned down the dial on my brain’s ability to focus while turning up the dial on its tendency to produce endless negative thoughts. My job as a digital journalist, which had once felt manageable, suddenly felt impossible. How could I be expected to concentrate when millions were dying and the world’s inequities were being brought to the forefront? 

The stress was overwhelming. And four months into the pandemic, when my hair started to fall out in clumps, I knew it was time to take action. 

I tried a number of new practices in an effort to improve my mental health: I meditated daily, I slept more, I did virtual yoga classes and I talked to a mental health professional. The latter helped me get at the root of what I was feeling while the other wellness practices brought me a sense of tranquility. I slowly began returning to my normal—but some degree of brain fog and anxiety persisted, especially during work hours.

(Related: How This BIPOC Mental Health Podcast Got Me Through COVID-19)

Picking up my old guitar 

In September, my father—who has been playing guitar for more than 50 years— started a business giving virtual music lessons. He’d always intended to teach, but had never gotten around to it. When the pandemic freed up his time and guitar sales skyrocketed, he finally took the leap.

Around that same time, I picked up my old acoustic. I had fiddled with it for a short time as a teenager, but it had since sat quiet in the corner of my room. With Toronto’s shops, restaurants and public spaces shut down, I figured learning the guitar would pass the time while also allowing me to spend time with my dad, who lives outside of Montreal. I never expected playing guitar to improve my mental state—until I experienced the benefits firsthand. 

After each one-hour Zoom lesson with my dad, I felt refreshed and fulfilled in a way I hadn’t experienced in a long time.

My dad called me a quick study, but there were plenty of occasions where I felt frustrated and discouraged over a chord that wouldn’t sound or a fingerpicking technique that seemed too difficult. Still, each time I picked up the guitar to work on a tune I loved, like “Danny’s Song” by Loggins and Messina—the song my father sang to my mother at their wedding—I became laser-focused on getting it right. Everything else just seemed to fall away. My mind was clearer, calmer and fog-free—and these benefits lasted long after I finished practicing each day.

The benefits of learning a musical instrument 

“We know that listening to music has a number of health benefits in terms of being able to help reduce anxiety, help with relaxation, help with breathing, it helps to regulate the body’s system, but that actively engaging in it is even more impactful,” says Amy Clements-Cortes, a music therapist, psychotherapist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto. Taking up a new instrument actually creates new pathways in the brain, she explains, which helps to keep the mind active and alert and can also enhance overall cognitive functioning. 

While some believe learning a musical instrument is reserved for young children with sponge-like brains, Clements-Cortes says there are distinct benefits for adults. Research indicates that playing music can help adults with everything from communication skills to reducing stress and anxiety. A 2017 study of 1,101 seniors, aged 64 and older, found that playing an instrument once every two weeks boosted participants’ attention spans, memory and executive function. More recently, data from Spotify showed that 89 percent of UK adults who learned the ukulele during COVID-19 lockdowns reported mental health benefits from the practiceincluding but not limited to an increase in feelings of happiness and relaxation. 

(Related: How Music Helps Your Brain) 

I wasn’t the only one taking music lessons during the pandemic 

Ed Lettner, owner of The Music Studio in the Greater Toronto Area, saw far more adults seeking lessons at his school during COVID-19, even as classes went virtual. Lettner teaches piano, and one of his adult students recently told him that he began playing every day before work after discovering how good it made him feel. Others told him they pursued new instruments specifically for the mental health benefits. 

“In some cases, they just thought they needed something to just take their minds off things,” Lettner tells me. “They just saw that as a way to have a break from everything else that was going on in their lives.”

Clements-Cortes says making music is often an emotional experience and can serve as a cathartic outlet. It helps people channel their creativity, and it improves self-esteem and confidence—three benefits which I personally experienced.

“It’s engaging in that kind of way which can release those-feel good hormones, and with that can bring this added clarity,” she says. “Really depending on why a person seeks it out and what’s happening in their life can perhaps influence the particular benefits they might get out of the experience.”

(Related: The Importance of Making Memories During Pandemic Life)

The mental health benefits of music extend beyond playing an instrument 

Of course, not everyone has the time, money or desire to take up a new instrument, but Clement-Cortes says even listening to your favourite song can benefit your wellbeing, especially during times of isolation

“If you want to change your mood and just have it enhanced a little bit, engaging in music can do that, and who doesn’t want that?” she says.

It’s been nearly a year since I began my music journey, and my mental health is the best it’s been since before the pandemic. Much of that has to do with the fact that I made the decision to prioritize my health—both mental and physical—once I started feeling off-kilter. But I also have my trusty old acoustic to thank for my improved state, and I intend to make sure it never spends years collecting dust in the corner of my bedroom ever again.

Next, find out 10 reasons you should always exercise with music.