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?

Books about mental health vol. 1

Two things have helped me manage my anxiety and depression above all else. Being honest about it with other people, and learning more about it. I’ve found certain books to help with that more than anything. Here’s five that I think might just help you too:

Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig

This book will make you uncomfortable. The title itself brings forward the realities of struggling with suicide and mental health and throws it right in your face. Many people probably already know of it, and for those of you who haven’t yet read it, I strongly suggest you do. Matt gives a truly honest account of his struggles with mental health. The back and forth nature of him speaking to his past self brings optimism to even the darkest situations. It opens the doors into the depths of what the people’s darkest days might look like, without the glorification that fiction and films often give depression. The world needs more of this as it gives people with mental illness hope, and people without it understanding.

“To other people, it sometimes seems like nothing at all. You are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames.”
― Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

The Brain: A User’s Manual – Marco Magrini

Ever since I started to understand mental health, the human brain has become more fascinating (and scary). While not specifically focused on mental health, this book gives a fairly technical yet humorous guide to the complexity contained within our craniums. Written in the guise of a user manual for a new product, it dives into the things we do and don’t know about how the brain works, why we react the way we do and the underlying reasons for it’s “malfunctions”. If you can get over the fact that reading this book is essentially your brain trying to learn more about itself, it makes for an excellent deep dive.

“Your brain is delivered to you pre-installed, so there is no need for complex connections or settings selections to make it work.”
― Marco Magrini, The Brain: A User’s Guide

Robin – Dave Itzkoff

There aren’t many celebrities that I can remember where I was when I found out they passed away. Gord Downie is one, David Bowie another, but Robin Williams will always stick out in my mind. Aladdin was one of the first films I saw as a young child, so Genie will forever be synonymous with Robin Williams for me. His ability to bring such joy to people through his work was superhuman. Reading this book and understanding the depth of what he was tormented by brings him back to earth a little while making all he achieved seem even more impressive. He wasn’t a perfect man but was driven by a want to bring happiness to others, not just on stage or on film. It’s a stark reminder to us all, that you never know what someone might be hiding beneath the surface.

“I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy. Because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anybody else to feel like that.”
― Robin Williams

The Little Book of Calm – Lucy Lane

This book may not have the depth of the ones above. It was gifted to me by another friend who struggles with mental health. I’ve found that while it certainly doesn’t offer answers, it serves as a really good anchor to bring you back from spiralling. For a while, during a particularly stressful and overwhelming part of my life, it was an anchor. I carried it in my backpack every day and used it as a means of settling back down. I would find somewhere quiet and read it from the beginning until I could feel my breathing return to normal. Even if that meant the toilet stall at work. Eventually, even just knowing it was there became helpful and although I don’t carry it everywhere anymore. It does, however, still have a spot on my bookshelf.

“After a storm, comes the calm”
― Proverb, the little book of calm

All My Friends Are Superheroes – Andrew Kaufman

I wouldn’t normally reach to fiction for anything mental health-related. It can often portray mental illnesses in a dangerous and glorified light. This book, however, is a short yet brilliant read. I’ve included it here not just because of the entirety of the book being great, but specifically for chapter five “the anxiety monster”. The author’s depiction of anxiety in a new situation, even a hopeful one, is so relatable. Even if you are just a lover of good fiction and beautifully descriptive writing, this book is worth a read.

“There are two ways to get rid of an anxiety monster, my friend – you either have a bath or a nap”
― Andrew Kaufman, All My Friends Are Superheroes

10 reasons people with anxiety will survive the apocalypse

Let me start with this. Anxiety isn’t fun. For me, personally, it’s relatively mild compared to most people. It still affects my work, my relationships and my life in general on a regular basis. However, I’ve gotten better and better at dealing and coming to terms with it. Frankly one of the ways I cope is to try and look at the bright side wherever I can. In a time where it’s as high as it’s ever been, the idea to write this made me smile and laugh. Hopefully, it does for you as well.

Watching the news lately gives the feeling that the apocalypse has already begun. When one is already overthinking simple day to day things, it opens up a whole new realm of things to obsess about. Will it be slow as the climate continues to change? Slightly faster in the form of a pandemic? Or will the Cheeto in-charge of the worlds largest nuclear arsenal bring about the end swiftly over a Twitter re-tweet? Whichever way the end may come, there are more than a few reasons why I think the anxious will be right there beside the meek to inherit the Earth.

#1 – We’re already several steps ahead on the “what else could go wrong” train of thought.

In the normal world, this is not necessarily a good thing, but in the apocalypse, things will be different. We’ll be the ones avoiding the plot twists like Matt Damon in, well, all his films really. Food shortage? Psh, I’ve been stocking up food for weeks. People are re-animating as zombies from the pandemic? I’ve been worrying about that since patient zero, it’s like you don’t even read my blog!

go ahead, ask me one more time what I have to be anxious about.

#2 – We’re already suspicious that people don’t like us based on small things.

In a world where you’re forced to make alliances with strangers whom you don’t trust, we won’t be falling into the classic trap of being stabbed in the back. No betrayals can sneak up on us, we saw that slightly strange look you gave us that one time. There’s no way we’re giving you the chance to turn on us! Heck, we’re already probably a mile away, dissecting the look a rabid dog gave us to determine if we did something to make it angry.

seriously though, those zombies are definitely not your friends

#3 – Social anxiety will protect us.

Even in the recent escalation of the coronavirus, there’s some positive news I’m taking from this. I might actually be encouraged to stay inside, away from people and large social gatherings. You mean it’s become socially acceptable, even encouraged to sit at home and watch a film on a Friday night? I’ve been training for this moment for years. No getting stir crazy for us, because we’re in our element and you can call us when it’s over.

Actually, don’t. This is great.


#4 – We are not waiting to “see how that injury is in the morning”.

Pass me the disinfectant, the bandages and the anti-biotics right bloody now. I am not taking chances here. How on earth can I outrun the zombies when they appear if my leg is infected? Thankfully I also stocked up on real medical supplies at the pharmacy before it got bad, while everyone else was in a fistfight over hand sanitizer and toilet paper.

#5 – We already know where all the safest places would be.

Part of over-thinking every possible thing that could go wrong is coming up with how you’d deal with it. Climate crisis? Guess what, I’m already on Mars. Nuclear fallout? Not for me, because I’m still on Mars. You got me here, pretty much all my doomsday scenarios end up on Mars.

Oh hey, Matt Damon! Pass the potatoes, please.

but what happens if climate change happens on Mars?

#6 – We’ve already come to terms with it.

A big benefit of having the world end in your mind dozens and dozens of times is that if it did actually happen then, well it won’t quite come as much of a shock. Will we still worry about it? Sure, but while everyone else is in complete shock or have their heads stuck in the sand we’ll be gearing up for action. Having your worst fears realized like a deja vu at least gives you the dress rehearsal you need when it actually goes down. Just like watching House of Cards.

presented without comment

#7 – We’re not likely to “be a hero” foolishly

Look, I’m not saying anxious people aren’t going to help others out, but we’re going to be reasonable about it. Jesse Eisenberg’s character in Zombieland was the epitome of anxiety in the apocalypse and he made it by following a specific set of rules. In this case, anxiety is our superpower by making us just think about things a tiny bit longer. If we could pick our superpower we’d probably pick something else, but this is ours and damn it we’re going to make the most of it.

#8 – We’re already used to using coping mechanisms to manage fear

Anxiety makes every day fear feel like your life is in danger. Anxiety triggers biological responses that cause adrenaline to surge and other similar physiological responses same as they do when you’re in real danger. People with anxiety constantly work to develop coping mechanisms to still be able to function when it happens.

While sleep might be scarce in the apocalypse, running sure as f*ck won’t be.

you can also add making phone calls and answering the door

#9 – We’re meticulously detailed in planning and execution

In Pokemon, you are advised to take a pokemon with you into the wild because it’s dangerous out there. Well in the apocalypse my pokemon will be lists, plans and maps. What do we need, what’s the backup plan, how do we get there and what could possibly go wrong?

It’s a largely useless skill when nothing is actually likely to go wrong, but who’s going to be laughing when it saves our asses because we had a back-up route around the brand new shiny giant nuclear crater.

#10 – We’re excellent at functioning with little to no sleep

Some people stay up too late because they were reading a good book, or binging a great Netflix show. We regularly stay up watching the great classics of all time like “That time I accidentally called someone the wrong name in 5th grade” or “Dissecting meaningless sentences people said to me: A history”. Zero stars to both, I would not recommend.

In the real world, this means constantly being tired in a world where most other people are well-rested. In the apocalypse, we’ll all be tired and some of us will just be better at dealing with it. (This also applies to nightshift workers, new parents and anyone who has to deal with people in a retail setting.)

the real irony is sleeping less makes it worse

Sure, this may seem overblown and the world isn’t coming to an end immediately. You could even argue that things are still getting better, the last time we had a pandemic this big it killed half of Europe! Things aren’t ever as bad as they seem, but you try telling our anxiety that.

Our superpower is just waiting to be needed, and in the meantime maybe befriend an anxious person. We might be some work to deal with now, but when the end comes you’ll be thankful you did.

On incrementally improving your mental state

Caring for your mental health can be overwhelming, especially when anxiety, depression or other conditions are at their worst. Everywhere you read about exercising, eating well, sleeping well, drinking water, getting sunlight, meditating and the list goes on and on.

When you’re already down on yourself, it can be hard to stay motivated and even harder to keep going if you miss a goal or experience a setback. I have definitely found my mental health is at it’s best when I’m ticking off all the “wellness” boxes. However, getting back on track when things start to slip, or when life gets in the way is by far the hardest part.

Over time, I’ve realized what is more important than the others, and instead of trying to get back to doing everything all at once, I set myself smaller goals over a longer period of time and focus on the things that are most important. These priorities are going to be different for everyone, but I’ll use my example to explain how it works for me.

Where to start

The first thing is sleep. If I don’t sleep well over a long stretch of time, I become irritable and grumpy, am less likely to have the energy to exercise or cook a meal and things will quickly spiral down from there. Whenever I recognize myself as getting out of healthy habits, this is where I start. This may mean passing on social outings, turning off the TV early and reading a book, or meditating before I go to sleep. It’s the foundation that, without it, means I’ll just keep falling down again.

From there it’s about setting manageable and achievable goals for drinking water, eating well and exercising. Being hard on yourself for missing an unachievable goal you set yourself doesn’t help anything. It’s better to set a goal of working out 3 times this week and hit it, then it is to try and do it every day and miss the goal, especially when your inner voice is already being hard on you.

The issues with drinking socially

The balance of social activities is the thing I probably find the hardest. Being alone definitely doesn’t help matters, but also social situations in your mid-twenties are almost always centred around drinking. This is where surrounding yourself with people who genuinely understand mental health is so important. There is nothing worse than being peer-pressured by a friend into another night out when you know it’s going to send you downwards. The guilt of disappointing a friend and the effects if you do are a clear no-win situation. I’ve found several ways of dealing with this:

  1. Take charge and make plans to do something not centred around drinking
  2. Drink less. Go along, order sodas with lime and do your best to hold fast against peer pressure.
  3. Prepare and recover. Eat well, exercise and drink water the day of if you know you’re going out. Try to do the same the day after.

Above all else, your mental health is yours to protect and friends who are more interested in getting you wasted probably aren’t that good of friends after all, especially if you’ve explained why. That may mean that some people lose touch but friendship shouldn’t come at the cost of your mental health.

Keep track

No one knows how you’re feeling better than you. Strategies for keeping yourself healthy ultimately come down to what works best for you. It’s okay to take it one step at a time, in fact, it’s almost essential. One of the best tools for setting out a plan is the rise of journalling. I was sceptical at first but I’ve found by revisiting how I’m doing each day. I am able to re-adjust the goals I’ve set and kept myself honest. This isn’t just when I’m in a funk, but also to keep a healthy mental state resilient and less likely to be taken down by a bump in the road. There are dozens of curated journals you can buy online, I’ve used MindJournal before, but ultimately it’s about three things:

  1. Observing how you’re feeling and write it down.
  2. Set both little and big goals. Sometimes mine are just “workout tonight”, even if it’s a light one like yoga, a stretch or a jog.
  3. Reflect on why you did or didn’t hit those goals and hold yourself accountable.

I wouldn’t expect this to be a blueprint for anyone, as everyone’s mental health is different and their own. Sharing successes and failures give us all the strength to carry on. Take advantage of motivation when you have it and don’t try and force yourself better, it takes little steps.

You got this.