The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.
As the lead singer of late ’90s rock faves Matchbox Twenty, Rob Thomas spent his 20s confidently performing in front of one crowd after the next. “There was a time up there when nothing could touch me,” Thomas, now 51, tells Yahoo Life. “I was totally fine. When you’re young, you are just blissfully naive about everything. You’re not really thinking about how people are perceiving you, and then that starts to creep into your brain more and more as you get older, and I think you start to become way more self-conscious even than you should be.”
For Thomas, that self-consciousness started to fuel panic attacks onstage. “It [began] in my mid-30s,” he says. “That’s when I really needed to start figuring out something to get around them, or some way to address them head-on.”
The musician ties his struggle with anxiety back to a particularly heartbreaking moment in his life. “Everything seemed to change a lot after I lost my mother,” Thomas shares. “There was a sense of a huge seismic shift in the way I thought. You’re having a normal day, everything’s clicking along, and you get a phone call that changes the course of your entire future from that point on. And you realize how quickly things like that can happen. And so it feels sane to think that there’s danger lurking around every corner, or that any interaction you have might be something that skews you off into a different direction.”
His initial strategy for dealing with the panic attacks was to “drink a lot at first,” Thomas admits. “Then Xanax was my friend for a really long time,” he says. “But it turns out, if you’re a person who’s trying to cope with drinking too much, then Xanax is probably not the best idea for you. So I realized that it was something that I needed to be honest about with the people around me.”
He remembers being at rehearsals and lying flat on the stage, just trying to get his breath back. “The guys, at this point, are just walking over me like, ‘OK, you’ll be fine,’” he says. “And it was fine — like to be able to not be OK. It’s OK to not be OK and to let the people around [you] know that.”
Therapy has also been integral to the singer’s mental well-being, but he points out that it’s normal to face a bit of trial and error before finding the practitioner who is the right fit. “You gotta keep going until you get it right,” notes Thomas. “My first therapist, she literally fell asleep on me during the session. I had to wake her up. And then, when I called her on it, she said I was boring her. My first reaction was, ‘I’m just not going to do this. This is not for me.’ And it took me years to [say,] ‘I need this.’”
Thomas was on the road with Matchbox Twenty at the end of 2019 when he realized he had been chronically depressed. “Luckily, I had a friend that had [a therapist] that she really, really trusted, and she turned me on to this person, and then that set me off into a really good place,” he recalls.
That said, the “Don’t Get Me Wrong” singer says caring for his mental and physical well-being is a work in progress. He admits that being a celebrity can contribute to ongoing challenges. For instance, he knows it’s not ideal that he’s motivated to work out because he’s going “to be on camera a lot” or because, being in his 50s, “the first thing people say when they see you is like, ‘Oh, wonder what he’s looking like these days.’”
“People on social media are really brazen with anything they want to say about you personally or your appearance,” Thomas says. “And guys don’t talk about body issues and how they feel about aging, because it’s not manly to do. But when you’re in any kind of public eye, and you can have that scrutiny right there in your face, it bothers you. So then I wind up having an unhealthy relationship with food — just the way that I’m looking at calories and the way that I’m looking at clothing. So [these are] things I talk about in therapy.”
In addition to therapy, Thomas leans on his “great support system,” which includes his wife, mother-in-law, closest friends and bandmates. “It’s really nice when you’re in a situation where you’re going through something, and you’re not talking to anybody, and you have people that are close enough to you [to] come over and go, ‘Hey, are you OK?’” he shares. “It’s good to have that, because [then I’ll say,] ‘Oh, I don’t know, let me think about that.’”
It’s no surprise the “Unwell” singer also finds songwriting therapeutic. “This cycle of analyzing the way that I feel and then writing it down and then going out onstage and shouting it to strangers for the last 30 years has been a very physical catharsis for me and a very helpful tool,” he notes. “When I was really young, [I tended] to write more from the outside in. I want to write a love song because this is what I want people to think about me, or I want to write a song like this because it’s cool, and it’s edgy. Then, you start to write songs that help you get through what you’re going through, and then you find that catharsis in the song, like unpacking your stuff. It’s journaling with a melody.”