Music For Emotional Health

This is a copy of the start of a thread I began at a music forum. I think mental/emotional health needs to be more talked about in our public spaces and in our personal circles, and since the general press isn’t stepping up, it’s going to have to be websites, blogs, forums, and independent publications making it happen. Links to my own favourite online resources will be posted after the excerpt from this thread.

I racked my brains about this thread title.  I really wanted to avoid giving off “let’s sit down in this sandstone cave and meditate” vibes.  But, so many people have had difficult experiences in life, and especially when that happens really early in your life, you can end up carrying a heavy weight around, sometimes without knowing it, and sometimes conscious of it.  A lot of families are dysfunctional, so that you never learn certain things in childhood that people in emotionally healthy families do – about yourself, about other people, about the world – it’s like you saw everything in (un)funhouse mirrors as a child, and when you get out into the world, you’re desperately trying to see it straight – and it can take a bit of time to get there, particularly if you’re not aware of these imposed distortions.

If you’ve had especially traumatic experiences, like family violence, emotional abuse and/or neglect, your brain develops differently to the way it would in a healthy situation. It grows up highly focused on survival, and marinated in stress hormones.  The hangover of a very stressful childhood with little emotional and/or physical security and repeated traumatic experiences can be in the form of complex PTSD, depression etc.  Depression can also happen to people who think they’ve had lovely childhoods and don’t remember any raised voices or fists or nasty put-downs etc from their caregivers – you can be affected by what didn’t happen, as well as by what actually happened.

And then there’s bullying, and being different, and dealing with that in childhood, and even in adulthood.  If you’re lucky, you grow up in a good community and don’t see too much negative stuff around that. If you’re not, well, then it’s harder.

So in short, many of us live with the after-effects of all sorts of BS that went down, and few of us can afford to go see a competent mental health professional as much as ideal when there’s something that needs to be sorted – if you can actually find one, because while some are great, some are not so great and you might have to keep shopping.  Anyhow though, the complete outsourcing of these problems to the mental health profession isn’t great either – the idea that you take your brain to be fixed like you take your car to be fixed.  The problems come from human community (its dark sides), and need also to be addressed in the human community (in the brighter sides and safe places).  The mystery and stigma around all this stuff has to go.  Self-education is always a great idea, and there are great (and not so great) books and online resources around these days to help with that.

And then there’s the power of stories – reading the stories of others, writing your own story, looking at fictitious stories which deal with some of the great challenges of being human – in literature, in drama, in poetry, and in music.

Music is a bit of a multi-layered beast – something more than words.  Looking at the science of music and its effects on the brain has always fascinated me.  Music – listening to it, playing it – taps into emotions like mere words cannot, and effortlessly take us places we can’t as easily go unassisted – sort of like amazing landscapes can, if you’re sensitive to that.

Many people use music not just for enjoyment, but as a space to help them get their head around life and its problems. People connect with it, and process things with it. You may hear a song which just strikes a huge chord with you, and you go, “Yeah, that’s me, I feel this, I think this, underneath!”  That’s a magical moment of common ground, and of someone else clearly expressing what you’ve been thinking and feeling yourself more murkily all along.

Epiphanies are nice, and so is working on your capacity to listen and empathise, through music.  And, on a more basic level, there’s that music itself can fly you to all sorts of places, just with the sounds, and give your mind something that serves as a form of meditation (without having to sit and focus on your breath – headphones in the dark do this so well), to break it out of the circles it might be going in.

So – here’s a thread for sharing music that has been particularly helpful for you emotionally.  It may help someone else.  We’re all like a bunch of Venn diagrams with overlaps in common, and sections not in common.  (Have you heard that saying, “If two people are exactly alike, one of them is superfluous”? )The in-common stuff helps us relate in the first place; the differences in perspective can help us to grow, if we listen to each other.

If I’m asking people to go out on a limb, I better practice what I preach and post a couple of songs.  This is difficult, because so many songs are relevant.  So I’ve picked two that for me have dealt with the big picture very well.

The first one to me is like “Take Off Your Rose-Tinted Spectacles 101”.  It cuts through a lot of crap.  Just ignore the last couple of sentences at the end of the song, as this is a song from a movie where people beat the crap out of each other recreationally / for existential reasons / because they’ve got excess testosterone / whatever.  I don’t have a Y-chromosome, plus I loathe violence because of my own experiences with it when I was defenseless.  I still thought it was a good movie, even if that aspect of it made me shudder.  But the song, by itself, is brilliant, and doesn’t need further explanation.

The next song speaks volumes about growing up in a dysfunctional family and then dealing with the rest of your life.  It came out about the same time I was officially diagnosed with complex PTSD – and it’s typical that you don’t find out until your 40s, because your brain is in survival mode all your life and so tightly clamped down that it doesn’t allow you to look behind the wall it made to compartmentalise the deeply disturbing stuff you grew up with, not until you feel safe, and for me that didn’t happen until the world wasn’t going to end if I wasn’t working fulltime.  So, tree change at 40, build your own house, downshift to part-time, find yourself in a safe and happy marriage and actually trusting someone close to you, and bang – the wall falls down, and suddenly you start having vivid nightmares that re-enact all the stuff that happened when you were a baby, when you were three, when you were eight, and re-unite you with the emotions you once had to put to one side just to get through your childhood.  (I had most of the memories all along, it was largely the emotions that went with them that had been walled off.)

It’s an a-ha experience (“Well, that explains so much of what was a mystery to me!”), but it’s also vastly disconcerting on a physical and emotional level to confront all that stuff, and to see technicolour movies of horrible scenes from your childhood night after night, accompanied by all the feelings you felt at the time, as a little girl – feelings that are visceral, and overwhelming, because you feel them finally from the perspective of the small and defenseless person you once were.  It’s your brain in surround-sound, plug-in multisensory movie mode, and with a season of repeat screenings that goes on for months before petering out eventually.  Sort of like being dropped in a Matrix that’s your past – or like going down a Harry Potter type pensieve night after night.

Nearly five years have gone by since then, so I’m looking back at it like a reporter now, at the re-integration of a brain that’s in my head as we speak, after the storm.  I can talk about that now, but couldn’t at first.  Our on-board computer is an interesting piece of equipment… and it’s so logical that it does what it does.  All the stuff that turns out is just software!  It’s almost amusing, and it takes a huge load off your shoulders.  And I know there are so many people like me as adults, and so many children growing up as we speak with terrible traumas in their young lives.

But at the time, when it was movie season, this song was a lifeline to me.

Love to anyone out there who has been down this road, or is on it now.  ♥

This thread lives here:

My own favourite online resources on this topic are:

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