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How an Unexpected New Hobby Helped One Woman Overcome Her Anxiety


Oh, please, please don’t notice me, Debbie Mayer silently begged, keeping a tight smile plastered on her face as she stood off to the side at a cocktail party. When her then-husband had asked her to attend his company party, she had obliged, even though the idea of it filled her with dread. With no idea how she would manage small talk with his colleagues, Debbie’s anxiety surged, so much so that her hands were shaking.

But when her husband’s boss tried to make her feel welcome by handing her a glass of wine, she spilled it down her dress and all over the floor. Debbie was mortified. I just want to run home and hide, she thought — and sadly, not for the first time.

Scared and stressed.

Debbie’s fear and lack of confidence had been a lifelong battle. Since she was in her 20s, she had struggled with agoraphobia and panic attacks, and her debilitating anxiety kept her home much of the time, avoiding social situations.

Her confidence started to dip even lower when she was diagnosed with a thyroid disorder. On top of that, her job advocating for low-income seniors at a nonprofit was taking a toll on her mental health and at 67 years old, she found herself feeling overwhelmed and sad.

I’m just not as happy or productive as I used to be, she thought as she made her way to the senior center one day. That afternoon, she happened to meet a Drums Alive instructor who had been giving lessons at the center and encouraged Debbie to take the class.

Debbie knew she needed to do something to reduce her stress and bring her energy levels back up, but she’d never been one to go to a gym or work out. She didn’t know much about Drums Alive — just that it involved hitting a large exercise ball with drumsticks. Interested, but scared she wouldn’t have the rhythm or coordination, Debbie’s worry grew anew: Am I going to like it? she wondered. Will I even be able to do it?

Loving life again.

One day, Debbie happened to be at the senior center right before a Drums Alive class, just as the instructor was arranging fitness balls, buckets and drumsticks in a circle. She was so enthusiastic that Debbie suddenly felt comfortable — and even a little excited. My anxiety won’t defeat me this time, Debbie resolved, challenging herself to give drumming a try.

At first, she was nervous, but the other women were so welcoming and the music was so fun that she felt like she would enjoy the class — even if she wasn’t very good at it. This is actually easing my stress! Debbie realized after just a few minutes of drumming to the beat. Of course, she made her share of mistakes, but it didn’t matter. By the end, Debbie felt happier and more relaxed than she had in a long time.

Taking the class weekly, Debbie felt stronger after only a few weeks, and soon, she noticed that focusing on getting the routines right was improving her concentration as well. As her drumming got better, her confidence grew, which translated to other areas of her life. She was more productive in her work advocating for seniors and was finally becoming the person she knew she could be.

In 2008, Debbie moved to Novi, Michigan. There were no Drums Alive classes there, and though she tried a cardio drumming class, it just wasn’t the same. So Debbie got certified herself, and today, she teaches six Drums Alive classes a week to students ranging in age from 50 to 85.

For Debbie and her students, the class is the perfect mind-and-body workout. In the face of each day’s stressors, just 5 minutes of drumming works wonders to melt them away, plus the class offers the mental benefits and upper-body workout to students who need to sit as they drum for physical reasons. And because it helps improve dexterity, coordination and memory, drumming is especially useful for women with disabilities and those recovering from a stroke or a fall.

“I can’t stress enough what Drums Alive has done for me!” the 69-year-old enthuses. “It’s made me a happier person — and a braver person. A few years ago my students and I even performed a Drums Alive routine at the Michigan State Fair on stage in front of 750 people. As we approached the stage, I couldn’t believe I was about to do it — I asked one of my students to pinch me! Then in September, I had a small part in a local production of the musical On the Road Again. In a million years, my 20-something self could never have dreamed that one day I’d be performing on stage with my anxiety. It’s given me a new lease on life!”

A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

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