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Playing Guitar Helped Me Process Grief and Start Healing From Anxiety and Depression

“For years, I had suppressed my emotions, thinking it was the “manly” thing to do. But once I started playing the guitar, I realized the importance of expressing myself. Music became my outlet, and through it, I was able to process my grief and anxiety.”

Hello! Who are you?

Hey, I’m Drew and I live in Brighton, down on the south coast of England with my amazing wife and two children. Nice to meet you. 

I’m a copywriter in advertising for a big agency in London, which means I come up with the concepts for adverts. On the whole, it’s a fun job as sometimes I’m paid to think about what the talking dog is going to say in the ad, though it can be long hours.

I don’t find it too stressful though, even when everyone around me is flapping, as I think my life experiences put the deadlines of advertising into perspective. 

Beyond my family, my biggest passion is the guitar and music. The guitar is the place I go to whenever I have a spare minute and it never lets me down.

I feel incredibly lucky that I have something that is endlessly fun, relaxing, and joy-giving. And I have a really deep love of listening to music, though I guess that’s the same for anyone, right?

Music’s always been where I go when something’s off. Sometimes I can hear a song and it connects with me in ways words could never do, and it can release something or enable me to understand something, without being able to articulate it. 

I consider myself to be a happy person. I’m very laid back, and as I’ve said, I don’t find the little things in life to be stressful. The key for me is that I’m extremely happy in my home life and love my family so much.

I just love spending time with them and am so grateful for the joy they bring me. I just wish I could spend more time with them sometimes, and not have to work so many hours. 

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What is your struggle and when did it start?

My dad died when I was 11. Which triggered depression and anxiety through my teens and early 20s.

He died of cancer, really suddenly. My parents were divorced and it was the summer holidays just before I started high school. I was on holiday with my mum and aunty and I tried calling my dad from the foyer of the hotel (long before mobile phones) – but it kept ringing out. And then after a few days, the line was dead, and the receiver left off the hook. 

When I got home my mum took me to see him, and he took a while to answer the door in his dressing gown. He apologized for not answering the phone and said he’d been too sick, but that he’d be fine. I hugged him and left with my mum, who was waiting in the car.

Something didn’t feel right, maybe the way he hugged me a little more gingerly than he normally would. I can still picture him clearly in his dressing gown from the height of my eleven-year-old self. That was the last time I saw him. 

He’d gone to the doctor with stomach pains and they had sent him away saying it was gastroenteritis. He’d actually had a carcinoma of the bowl which had burst and given him sepsis. Shortly after I saw him he was rushed to hospital and died. He was 55.  

I was in shock and anger for many years. And this lead to a general feeling of lowness, and numbness, which I would call depression. As I got older I experienced more social anxiety which affected my late teens and early 20s. I think I’m a naturally shy person, but this was compounded by my grief. 

I remember thinking that my dad was the only person who really understood me. We were incredibly close. As my parents had divorced when I was seven I had spent every weekend with my dad. So in many ways, this meant I spent lots of very close, quality time with him.

But like any young boy would feel, my world was trampled on when he died. I dreamed about him constantly and would wake up with a mixture of happiness and deep sadness that I’d seen him, but that it was just a dream. 

His death triggered anxiety and depression through my mid-to-late teens and early 20s. It came to a head in my university studies, when I felt so anxious that I had to take a year out of university and have a break in my studies.

I found social interactions very stressful, and so any kind of seminar was difficult. I basically retreated into myself and wanted to close the door to the world. 

I now reflect that I’m lucky to have had such great times with my dad and that many people have a father that they never really connect with, even though they live to a ripe old age. I think this focus on the good in every situation is the key to finding contentment, which I think is all we have control of.

Appreciate what you have. The happiness comes and goes. Life can bring ups and downs, but if we appreciate what we have throughout, then we can enjoy the happier times and ride out the lower times. 

How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?

From the outside, I’ve always appeared kinda fine. As I’ve said, I got a degree and then went on to get a second while I worked. I had a decent job, although it was only when I was 30 when I retrained did I find a career in advertising that’s pushed me forward and brought me the fulfillment you need from work. 

I think a big part of my struggle was not being able to talk about it with my family. It just felt like no one wanted to get into it and make me upset, so I never really brought it up and just dealt with it on my own. 

Our culture teaches boys that they can’t cry, or show weakness. I also think my family thought they were helping by just moving on and not creating a scene.

They also had their own ways of dealing with things, from an era when people just got on with life and didn’t complain. So I certainly don’t judge anyone. But I do think it made things very hard for me to process the grief as I couldn’t really talk to anyone about it. 

As I grew older through my teens, I found that I struggled with anxiety and depression. I hung out with the rebellious kids and did the bare amount of schoolwork I could get away with. I started the dangerous line of thinking that it was cool not to try hard. 

But I was bright. And so I found school easy and passed my exams without working. Which was another dangerous lesson. I could get by without trying. 

This set a pattern through my teens and early 20s of doing the bare minimum and never feeling fully fulfilled. 

I found certain social interactions really difficult. I had a kind of social phobia. However, to people outside they would think that I was fine. I also drank a lot in social settings, which is a cultural norm in the UK, and this masked my anxiety.  

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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?

I’d started playing the guitar in my early teens. Fast forward to now, and I’m the founder of an online guitar magazine called Guitar Mammoth, where we help people learn the guitar with articles on things like easy songs for beginner guitarists.

Back then, I was obsessed with Nirvana and the whole grunge scene in the early 90s. But as I hit my early 20s, I started playing in a band.

The connection and friendship I found with my bandmates were huge. I had found a supportive network of friends who I could be open with. Probably because openness is key to musical expression. 

Over time, playing the guitar became my therapy. Whenever I felt overwhelmed or anxious, I would play a tune or write a song. It allowed me to express my feelings without having to put them into words. The more I played, the more I felt a sense of release and relief.

It was a combination of my own actions, the therapeutic nature of music, and the supportive community of musicians I became a part of that contributed to my healing. If I had to quantify it, I’d say 70% was a result of my actions and 30% was due to the circumstances and people around me.

It took me about 15 years after my dad’s passing to make significant progress. The guitar was the catalyst that set me on a path to understanding and managing my emotions better. It not only helped me cope with my grief but also built my confidence and self-worth.

I’ve researched the benefits of playing guitar, and the list is seemingly endless. For those who are interested, I have written an article that covers all the incredible benefits of playing guitar for mental health.

From the release of dopamine, reducing stress, improving cognitive abilities, and preventing mental decline, there’s so much that playing guitar, and instruments in general, can offer us.

So I’d urge anyone, no matter how old you are to pick up an instrument. It’s never too late be be a beginner at anything. 

What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?

The first step I took was acknowledging my feelings. For years, I had suppressed my emotions, thinking it was the “manly” thing to do. But once I started playing the guitar, I realized the importance of expressing myself. Music became my outlet, and through it, I was able to process my grief and anxiety. 

I also sought therapy. Talking to a professional helped me understand the root of my feelings and gave me tools to cope. My therapist introduced me to mindfulness and meditation, which I practiced daily. It helped me stay present and not get overwhelmed by my past or anxious about the future.

Also, playing guitar, or any instrument, is an inherently mindful practice. When you’re paying you can’t think about anything else. And so I found it helped me in so many ways. 

For anyone going through a similar situation, I’d recommend finding a creative outlet, whether it’s music, art, writing, or any other form. It’s essential to have a safe space where you can express yourself without judgment.

Also, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Sometimes, talking to someone who’s trained to understand can make all the difference.

Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?

Initially, I kept my struggles to myself. I felt that showing vulnerability would make me appear weak. But as I started healing and understanding my emotions better, I began opening up to close friends and family. Their support and understanding were invaluable.

There were, however, some people I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with. Some colleagues and acquaintances had a tendency to dismiss mental health issues or offer unsolicited advice. I chose to keep my journey private from them to protect my mental well-being.

Over time, I’ve realized the importance of talking about mental health. It not only helps the person struggling but also educates others and reduces the stigma around it.

If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?

Embrace your emotions, no matter how painful or overwhelming they might seem. It’s okay to feel sad, angry, or anxious. These feelings are a part of the healing process. 

Find a safe space or outlet where you can express yourself, and remember, you’re not alone in your struggle. Surround yourself with supportive people, seek professional help if needed, and always prioritize your mental well-being.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?

Where can we go to learn more about you?

As I’ve linked to above, I’ve got a website about guitars called Guitar Mammoth, which helps me share my passion. Please check it out if you’re interested in guitar. If you’re interested in joining the team and writing for us, please reach out.

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

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Hugo Huijer AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Founder of Tracking Happiness, with over 100 interviews and a focus on practical advice, our content extends beyond happiness tracking. Hailing from the Netherlands, I’m a skateboarding enthusiast, marathon runner, and a dedicated data junkie, tracking my happiness for over a decade.

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