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Elizabeth Wagele


Are You, or Have You Ever Been, Anxious?

And do you suffer from performance jitters?

Drawing by Elizabeth Wagele
Source: Drawing by Elizabeth Wagele

Steve Young is a football hero who has been troubled by anxiety. He longed to be the best quarterback in the NFL as the 49ers’ quarterback. But he dreaded disappointing anyone and felt very anxious. He tells about his experiences in his book, QB: My Life Behind the Spiral.

I can identify with his performance anxiety, but my vehicle was not football – it was music. I was terrified of being in recitals as a child, even though there was nothing I loved more than playing the piano. It should have been natural for someone like me to perform, but it was agony. I suffered the most when playing classical piano music, where each note must be exactly the right one. Playing music at parties by ear has never bothered me, however, because I can choose the notes I want to play; if I hit a “wrong” note by accident, I can make it sound like I intended it.

Most adults who knew me thought I’d become a concert pianist, but I didn’t have the steel nerves required. I felt cursed, perhaps like a person whose whole aim in life is to be a doctor but who can’t be around blood.

As a graduate student in music at UC Berkeley, I would get sick from fear when I had to give a report in a seminar. At age 40, I developed a phobia centered on restaurants. The mere thought of a restaurant could lead to a panic attack. I felt so anxious at one Thanksgiving dinner, I could not sit down. So I went to a psychologist for a year and a half, who finally convinced me to see a neurologist. The EEG said I had temporal-lobe epilepsy. Medicine helped a lot but I was already in such a habit of fear that it took almost a year to feel normal again.

Teaching piano suited me. But eventually I switched to writing books, and the necessity to give book talks. More anxiety. More psychologists, one of whom tried to hypnotize me. I’m not sure hypnotherapy worked but he did give me some good ideas for managing my fear. I gave so many book talks that my amygdala and I got used to it. I lost my fear of public speaking.

Steve Young received the most help from a team doctor who understood what he was going through. Now Young hopes telling his experiences will help others. He traces his anxiety partly to inheritance. He found others in his family who were also anxious. After being away from football for 17 years, his anxiety has vanished. Read about Young in Eric Branch’s article, In new book, ex-49er Steve Young details his battle with anxiety.

I am an INFP and a 5-Observer in the Enneagram. INFP’s tend to be sensitive and 5’s are in the fear triad (5, 6, and 7). Some members of my family have also had problems with anxiety.

I’m not sure what part epilepsy has played in my case. After years free of panic attacks, my neurologist encouraged me to stop taking medicine for it—and I did. I’m glad to report that whatever was causing my symptoms seems to have let go.

• Please check out my book, The Happy Introvert, which has a chapter on neurology. See all my books and The Beethoven Enneagram CD at


About the Author

Elizabeth Wagele was the co-author with Ingrid Stabb of The Career Within You: How to Find the Perfect Job for Your Personality.