about Winning at Music Festivals as a Somewhat Anxious Introvert
We are about a week away from my favorite time of year, and I’ve got nervous AND excited butterflies just thinking about it: Austin City Limits Music Festival (ACL).
As a somewhat anxious introvert, this *should* be my version of the seventh circle of hell, but really it’s my favorite unofficial holiday. If this is your first music festival or if you’re having feelings about making a return visit, here are some things you can do to get the most out of ACL while managing your anxiety.
However, before we get to the list, let’s take a minute to differentiate between what it feels like to be anxious versus what it feels like to be excited. There’s certainly some overlap, but it’s important to tease out the differences before you hit the festival.
Grab a writing utensil and some paper and set a timer for three minutes.
In that time, write down as many symptoms of your anxiety or nervousness as you can.
Now reset the timer and do the same for excitement.
Note the similarities, but really pay attention to those differences. Circle them. Commit them to memory. Knowing your anxiety symptoms will help you manage it better when you’re out in the world.
Now, let’s get ready for ACL!
Listen to the Playlist & Make a Plan
Every year, there’s a Spotify playlist of all the artists playing ACL. Listen to it to get a sense of the up and coming artists, as well as the folks whose shows you really have to attend. Make a list of who you want to see and compare it to the schedule for the weekend: make your plan – where do you have to be when? Have you given yourself enough time to grab food and to have a rest? How do you decide between two beloved artists slotted for the same time?
2. Do a Lap When You Arrive
While the layout of the stages is pretty consistent from year-to-year, do a lap to see what has changed. Find the shade. Find the bathrooms. Find the water. Make sure you know where to go to take care of your physiological needs. Orienting yourself to the physical space will help you feel less anxious about taking care of yourself should you get overwhelmed or start to feel panic.
3. Give the Morning Performers a Chance
The park is pretty empty in the mornings, which can help anxious folks transition into full-blown music festival mode by the afternoon. Because the park gets busier as the day goes on, you basically use graduated exposure therapy to grow accustomed to the increasing masses of people. Also, you get to see the morning performers up close – and you never know how meteoric they’re going to get. For instance, I saw Lizzo play a morning show in 2016. I was maybe 150 feet away from her. Then, in 2019 she more or less shut down ACL because her stage wasn’t big enough to accommodate the crowds. And now it’s 2022 and she’s got an Emmy winning TV show and is playing a stadium tour. In short, ACL can be a jumping off point for a lot of talented artists. Do some prep work, listen to the playlist, and make sure you catch some folks who are trying to get their big break.
4. Prepare for Sensory Overload
Here’s what I know to be true about ACL:
There’s very little shade.
Sometimes it’s smelly.
There’s a lot of dust.
People touch you because you’re in a very large crowd.
You’re standing and walking a ton.
Here’s how you can manage some of that sensory overload:
HYDRATE. Yes, it’s fun to have drinks at a show. Sometimes alcohol can even act as social lubricant, easing that anxiety and overwhelm caused by overstimulation. But it can also dehydrate you and make your experience pretty terrible. Make sure you drink plenty of water, maybe even plan to use some electrolyte tabs to help combat dehydration. There are free water stations all around the park, and you’re allowed to bring a water bottle, so make sure you bring at least one and get plenty of refills throughout the day.
Remember your sunnies, pack an umbrella, and scope out some of the shadier places in the park. Also, use all the sunscreen or wear a sun repellant shirt – no one needs a blistering sunburn from standing out unprotected all day. If you wear sandals, remember to put sunscreen on your feet. That’s some next level discomfort nobody wants – especially if you’re standing and walking three days.
If you tend to get overwhelmed by loud noises, pack headphones or earplugs so the music isn’t quite so loud. Additionally, sometimes wearing a baseball cap can help provide a sense of security or containment.
Remember your embodiment and grounding skills. If you start to feel overwhelmed, do some 5-4-3-2-1 Orienting, Square Breathing, one-nostril breathing (simulates breathing into a paper bag), or put ice on your wrists.
Notice 5 specific things in your surroundings, 4 different sounds, 3 physical sensations, 2 different smells, 1 taste
Inhale 1-2-3-4, Hold full 1-2-3-4, Exhale 1-2-3-4, Hold empty 1-2-3-4, Reset breath; Repeat
Put your finger over one nostril, Inhale 1-2-3-4, Switch nostrils, Exhale 1-2-3-4-5-6, Reset breath
A DIalectic Behavioral Therapy distress tolerance tactic, holding ice or putting it on your wrists can act as a distraction AND help lower your core body temperature, thus preventing further physical overwhelm
Find someplace quieter or shadier to help calm your system or to prevent further sensory overload. Maybe you scouted this spot when you took your initial lap!
By the end of the day, you’re in a crush of people who also have been standing out in the sun. Be prepared for body odor and the funk of portable toilets. I wish I had a suggestion for this, but really, just be prepared.
The Austin Parks Department does a wonderful job of creating a beautifully manicured lawn in Zilker Park; and by the end of the first Friday, it’s traipsed and moshed down to dust. If you’re sensitive to dirt or allergens or simply don’t want to breathe in a lungfull of dust, bring a mask or bandana to cover your mouth and nose.
Getting touched by sweaty strangers is another thing that requires stating, but doesn’t really have a solution. The closer you get to a stage, the tighter the crowd. The later in the day, the more people in the park. While people generally are respectful about personal space, occasionally someone will bump into you. It’s a thing that happens.
ACL has eight stages and sometimes you have to walk from end to end to see different artists. One year I logged 10 miles of walking in a day (I since have mellowed considerably). While I appreciate a good ACL fashion moment, now is not the time to break in a new pair of Doc Marten’s. Wear your comfy shoes. If being close to the stage isn’t an imperative, bring a camp chair or a picnic blanket and give yourself a break. It’s still possible to enjoy the shows from a distance – there are cameras and huge screens and sometimes it’s easier to see the performance and hear the actual music if you’re not right up in the speaker’s business.
Even if you’re the world’s most outgoing extrovert, plan for a people hangover. If you can afford it, take Monday off. Your system just spent 1-3 days being overloaded by beautiful music and people and all the sensory stimulation. You’re going to need a dark room and some silence for at least a little while
5. You Don’t Have to See ALL the ShowsI did that one year. I think I attended 37 shows in three days. I loved it, but it took a week to recover. This is why it’s important to plan your days: you might end up not wanting to get to the park until later in the afternoon if you’re not ecstatic about any of the a.m. artists, and that’s okay. Honor what your body needs. If you went too hard on Friday, have an easy morning on Saturday. Most of the performers at ACL are on a festival circuit where they play every three-ish years. So if you didn’t get to see someone this time, there’s a good chance they’ll be back
That’s it! Those are the things! I know I made ACL sound overwhelming, and that’s because IT IS. But there’s magic in getting caught up in the collective energy and excitement of an event, of listening to live music in a beautiful park surrounded by a hugely diverse crowd of people, of allowing yourself to be completely in a moment. This is a list of tools meant to help you be in each moment. Use it well, and enjoy the show!