The complicated relationship between music and mental health

All it takes is a quick look around a concert venue to see that music connects deeply with people emotionally. People joyfully singing along. People smiling ear to ear with tears running down their face. Even just swaying side to side with their eyes closed and lost in the moment. When something connects with people so deeply at an emotional level, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s intertwined with mental health.

I’ve never been quite able to explain the link between my emotional state and music. That is, beyond the fact that the relationship is clearly strong. Certain songs remain forever associated with memory and others mean more at a point in time. If you did a snapshot of my Spotify at certain points in time, the overall mood of those top songs would almost certainly give you a good indication of what I was going through. Or at least how I felt at that time in my life.

I can still remember the song playing in my headphones vividly even now, nearly 8 years later. It was probably the lowest point, about a month after my grandfather passed away. I had gone into a downward spiral, breaking up with my girlfriend, pushing friends away and neglecting my school work. I had made half-assed attempts to “cheer myself up”, but clearly something was wrong, beyond grief. This particular evening I’d tried to go to a party with my friends and resume normality but a panic attack thwarted that pretty quickly.

I walked home by myself with my headphones on. After the Storm by Mumford and Sons came on and I broke down completely. The song had no connection to my grandfather but at that moment it caused the involuntary acknowledgement of the deteriorating state of my depression, one way or another. I broke down completely into tears, unable to stop. I got home and sat in my living room, with one of my housemates unable to even discern what the problem was. I cried the hardest I ever have. I’d clearly been bottling up emotions in an unhealthy way for a long time. One sad song at the right moment was apparently what it took to let it all out.

Recognizing music’s effects

Music has been a catalyst for coming to terms with my own mental health. It has also been a tool for recognizing when it’s good and bad. Despite not really knowing I was depressed, I had a playlist on my first iPod called “depression”. It was full of songs that essentially kept me in that state. Can’t really say it wasn’t what was on the tin. Reflecting on it now, it was a clear sign of how unhealthy my relationship with my mental health was. I could recognize being depressed and then would proceed to fuel the fire with music that made it worse.

While I now see the pattern, back then I considered it normal to simply be listening to sad music when I was sad. It was an important cycle to break and to acknowledge my mental health. I could then actively work to improve it with music rather than fuelling the fire is a microcosm of the progress I’ve made over the years. Not letting things build-up to the point of breaking, and pretending to be okay when I’m not is so important.

It’s not all bad, of course. There are songs to this day that I associate so strongly with a happy moment or memory that they bring a smile to my face no matter what. Memories of music festivals with friends, a family memory or just a happy moment also become associated with songs. These associations are just as powerful and even more important. It can also be a means of de-stressing or relaxing. I find playing the guitar to be as effective as meditation for calming the mind. It requires a dedicated focus on one thing that stops frantic wandering thoughts.

Using it to your benefit

Not everyone is connected to music so deeply, and others are even more so than I am. It’s important however to recognize the power it can have, and how you use it. I use it as a toolbox to better acknowledge how I’m feeling and even manage that state of mind. Acknowledging your mental health state is the first step to managing it. If I find myself constantly reaching for songs that evoke a sad memory or feel more strongly connected to the emotions of music then that’s usually a good sign that I need to do something about it.

From my own experience, I would recommend that anyone struggling with mental health issues takes a bit of a look of their relationship with music. When you’re depressed, what do you reach for and does it help or make it worse? If you’re anxious, does certain music calm you down or help you sleep? What songs bring back happy memories? If you can identify the way it influences you, you can use it as a tool to help break the cycle. Make playlists for when you need to relax, to focus or to try and stay positive. If you play an instrument, see if it helps your mindfulness.

Mental health is a complex thing and not everything is going to work always or for everyone. However, as much as you can’t just decide to be happy when your depressed, or calm when you’re anxious, you can identify the things that influence those states of mind and use them to your advantage instead of fueling the fire.

What’s your experience with music and your mental health?

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