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Music therapy: why music is vital for my mental health

Posted by
Meena Alexander
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Woman listening to music through headphones

For Meena Alexander, a teenage penchant for singing in her bedroom turned into a lifelong reliance on the healing power of music.

Remember those delicious days of teen angst, when listening to something moody through your headphones and staring wistfully out of a car window (ideally rain-streaked) was enough to make you feel emotionally cleansed? 

My adolescent years are a blur of late nights spent starfished on my bed with music – joyous, dark, uplifting, heartbreaking music – blasting into my ears as I indulged in the youthful luxury of just feeling all my feelings. 

Granted, those feelings were often magnified by hormones and sheer novelty, but nevertheless the bass, strings, harmonies and lyrics of songs managed to articulate my emotions long before I had the language to do it myself. 

Nowadays, I have decidedly less time to stand under the shower, a hand extended towards my imaginary audience as I perform a dramatic rendition of Mariah Carey’s Hero, but losing myself in music is still my chosen form of therapy.

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I no longer turn to it to soothe the sting of an unrequited crush or fall-out with a frenemy, but music does help me deal with the seemingly inevitable delights of adult life: stress, anxiety and the kind of low mood that creeps up on you on an idle Sunday afternoon.

For me, there’s nothing more escapist than marching down the street to Beyoncé like I’m wearing 50 yards of yellow tulle and swinging a baseball bat. For those three minutes I’m owning my anger, asserting my power, mentally smashing shit up.

There are the times when I just need to cry, and like violin solos that usher us towards tears in a film score, the beautiful voices of Jhené Aiko and Frank Ocean help induce emotions I usually suppress for fear of appearing, well, childish.

More than anything, listening to loud music allows me some quiet.

Like so many others, a low-level anxiety can work itself into the kinks of my brain when I’m feeling thinly stretched – across work, relationships, money and life plans, between trying to be a good friend/partner/daughter/sister and trying not to eat pasta for dinner every single night.

It’s in these moments that I find the most comfort in music. The ritual of putting on my headphones and allowing the sound to be my sole focus is a form of meditation I cannot do without.

For this reason, my love of music has always felt intensely personal. Which is probably why I feel attacked by something as simple as a friend telling me they’ve never listened to Lauryn Hill

But of course, it’s not personal at all. In fact it’s pretty universal. Humans have always had emotional responses to sound and there is a wealth of research showing that listening to music is good, if not vital, for our health.

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Aristotle (hi Mum, I’m quoting Aristotle so all that student debt was worth it) believed that flute music was adept at arousing strong emotions and “purifying the soul” – what he was unlikely to have guessed, however, is that 2,000 years later Kendrick Lamar’s rapping would have a similar effect on me.

Today, music therapy is used to treat everything from insomnia and depression to some forms of dementia. A landmark US study in 2006 showed that listening to music lowers levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, one conducted at West Virginia University in 2016 found it was effective for boosting mood and another in South Korea found that it actually eased physical pain. So yeah, science is here for bangers.

I know music provides background noise to most people’s daily lives, but the next time you tap on a SZA album or turn up some Lizzo, I urge you to give it your absolute, undivided attention. 

You might be surprised by the feelings it brings up – whatever they are, sit with them and let them wash over you like the fake rain in a Noughties music video. Trust me, it feels good. 

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Meena Alexander

Meena Alexander is Stylist’s sub-editor. She mostly writes about music, TV, film and books – all the best things in life.

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