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Mental Health Awareness Week: Why music is so important for my mental health

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As many self-help diagnoses and philosophers including Sartre pointed out, social anxiety may stem from the fear of “the look”, or being judged by others. And whilst that’s very plausible, knowing your condition's origin often doesn’t ease the feeling of living with it. 

I’ve read countless self-help books, endured hours of therapy (and I hate speaking about myself), yet still even asking which aisle the beans are on induces sweaty palms and darting eyes. At worst, it even led me to become severely depressed. Yet despite this, music has existed on the timeline of my struggles as a manifest shoulder to cry on.

Fionsa Apple // Image credit: Sachyn [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia

Although I’d struggled with feelings of social anxiety ever since I can remember, the condition was heightened by the social piranhas of secondary school. During this period I was pretty much mute outside of my circle and I became incredibly introverted. I’d worry about walking down the corridor, in case I tripped up or made eye contact with someone. In fact, I’d avoid eye contact with anyone, in case I took their gaze too long, or in the wrong way and they’d think I was weird.

People would try and strike a conversation with me and my mind would go completely blank. For someone that had a lot of opinions about things, it made me feel like people thought I was brain dead. I developed a lot of internal aggression. Even my relationships with friends struggled, as I convinced myself that they hated me, and wanted me out of their life.

In tandem with my spiralling mental health, during my early teens I became obsessed with music. It moved from being background noise to a compulsive hobby. I listened obsessively to artists like The Smiths, Joy Division and The Cure as their lyrics, and the atmosphere created in their music, explored something other than partying or unrequited love. Somehow, these strangers singing about their internal struggles 20 years ago so perfectly encapsulated the thoughts in my own head that I had struggled to articulate. 

When visiting the GP for diagnosis you're often asked the conundrum question: "Have you found little pleasure or interest in doing things you have enjoyed before?" Yes, I had little interest in many things, leading me to fail my initial year of A-levels, and drop out of extracurricular activities.

I had been a vociferous reader but my lack of concentration meant I could barely get past ten pages in a book. Yet despite this, my interest in music differed in correlation. No matter what state of mind I was in, it would always be there to soundtrack me through my best and worst moments. With that, music became inextricable from my mental health, as I listened to different songs and albums on repeat during different stages of my life. Even now I can’t listen to a full Bright Eyes album without being transported back to 15 years old, having a good cry in an attempt to purge myself of all the self-hatred I felt.

Then came university, which as anyone suffering from social anxiety knows can be intensely daunting. On one hand, meet the right people and it can be the best experience of your life; on the other hand, it can be the loneliest and the worst. Alcohol can become a distractive and socially acceptable mode of channelling these emotions. Though music existed as my healthy coping mechanism, alcohol was the debauched elixir to deceptively good social skills.

Discovering that this polymorphous substance could let me speak more than two words to the girl I’d sat next to in my seminar or the boy I had a soft spot for on from my course inevitably meant I began to abuse it heavily. But abusing it usually leads to a projectile vomit of consequences. And projectile vomit is not something I liked cleaning up the morning after. I’d get myself in a state and spend the whole night in floods of tears, as everything I felt and couldn’t articulate came out in a far from streamlined manner. 

I didn’t discover Fiona Apple until this time, after ‘Every Single Night’ fatefully came onto a YouTube playlist. There always seemed some sort of barrier between me and the male musicians I’d listened to, but Fiona Apple’s music felt so raw and organic. She has a knack of songwriting that permeates her every song, only to be found in artists like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan.

Notoriously, she has had a hell of a time over the course of her life including sexual assault, eating disorders and mental health issues, but although her lyrics speak of her personal experience, there is also something universal about them. Fiona just seemed to have taken everything I found hard to put into words and twisted it into a poetic and authentic narrative.

Her back-catalogue seemed to have a song for every form of thought that had crossed my mind. ‘Shadowboxer’ became the pathos-inducing anthem during the ups and downs of my two-year emotionally abusive relationship; ‘Sullen Girl’ came on repeat during my relapses into depression; the album The Idler Wheel... helped me cope most healthily with the feelings of anxiety-induced paranoia. Apple’s music was incredibly mature and more cathartic than artists like Bright Eyes, who encouraged me to wallow in my self-pity.

Inevitably, I sought help and have recently begun Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sessions. I’m slowly beginning to cope with everyday situations, and engage with my thoughts in a more honest way. I still have days where there’s a pit of dread in my stomach at the thought of entering public spaces. I still have the occasional anxiety attack, and I still suffer a lot with speaking to new people. But now, I know it’s a slow process and with the support network around me, I can slowly be more at one with myself and social situations.

Music remains the crutch within my support network, readily available to advise or purge me in a few touches of a screen. As long as I develop new experiences within my mental health, artists will create new tracks that help me cope in a new way. 

Lead image: Sachyn [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia




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