Anxiety and OCD: how music can help you manage your mental health

Nic Thompson
Dec 3 · 6 min read
Hands holding musical instruments aloft: guitars, a cymbal, a keyboard, a microphhone.
Hands holding musical instruments aloft: guitars, a cymbal, a keyboard, a microphhone.

Music is a therapy. It is a communication far more powerful than words, far more immediate, far more efficient.

Yehudi Menuhin

I struggle with anxiety and OCD. I know I’m not alone in that, a lot of us deal with those things on a daily basis — they’re exhausting, upsetting and not at all easy to unravel. I sometimes find myself talking in circles — everything seems linked to everything else, and I can’t find the end of the thread.

Part of the anxiety/OCD ouroboros, for me, is really tangled up with music. When things were at their worst, I got to a really weird place where I had to skip or avoid certain songs, I could only listen to others in a certain order, I created weird convoluted playlists that I had to listen to on endless loops.

I have a few theories on why my OCD was using music to control my brain, but they all basically come back to the fact that music has always been the most important thing in my life, aside from — you know — other humans. It’s the perfect way for something as insidious as OCD to keep me in line — it’s an ever-present part of my life. But I had genuinely got to a point where I’d rather not listen to music at all, than have to go through all the weird and wonderful compulsive hoops my OCD had set up for me.

I’d also totally stopped playing the piano. That happened in my late teens, after my general aversion to being the centre of attention finally overwhelmed my desire to please people. As a result, I took the most self-sabotaging path I possibly could have. I gave up this thing I loved more than anything, rather than tell my parents I didn’t want to perform everywhere I went and risk upsetting them.

It still makes me a bit sad thinking about it now. It was a stupid move, and picking it back up again was painful both emotionally and cognitively — I realised how much skill and knowledge I had lost, and how it was very unlikely I’d ever get it back again.

But also this wonderful thing happened: I went back to the piano with no expectations. When I played when I was younger, everything was geared towards ‘A Performance’ or ‘An Exam’. It wasn’t enough just to play music and enjoy the process of learning and perfecting and personalising each piece, nor was it acceptable to learn a piece by watching someone play it (a weird thing I can do, don’t know how or why). I wasn’t able to forgo theory that I hated and didn’t need, or to spend hours trying to identify intervals by ear, something I got completely obsessed with when I was taking my GCSEs.

As a teenager I played along with this ‘you must have an end-goal’ idea. As an adult, one who had gone through therapy for a little while and was beginning to understand myself a little better, I was able to change my mindset a little, and allow myself just to sit down at the piano and pull up a YouTube video of a song I absolutely adored. I learned it from start to finish without sheet music or any notation. I learned it and played it constantly for the sheer enjoyment of it.

Music acts as an extension of therapy for me. So, I thought I’d share three ways that I have used music to help me over the past year, in the hopes they might help you too, with a little adaptation and personalisation.

1. As meditation

Playing a musical instrument is an incredible form of meditation. I have always struggled with the whole clear-your-mind, let-your-thoughts-float-by-like-clouds meditation. I need something external to focus on. Someone once suggested using a candle flame, which I did for a while and it helped, but I then had a flame-shape imprinted on my retina for about an hour afterwards. Which is, as it turns out, the worst.

The solution, for me, was playing the piano. Playing scales is a weirdly meditative experience. When there is no pressure to get the finger placement right, no-one calling out obscure scales that you have to remember and continue over three octaves, they just end up being a repetetive, satisfying thing to focus on and let your mind go otherwise blank. The effect is the same with a piece you know inside out from memory. I would seriously suggest learning at least one piece this way if you can, doesn’t matter how simple it is, just needs to be something you can play without thinking too much about.

2. As a way to ground yourself

One of the ways I got through my weird music listening issues with OCD was to balance my OCD tendencies with my desire to listen to music properly again — for enjoyment rather than as part of compulsive behaviour. So, I would listen to a whole album, start to finish, and focus in on particular things each time — the vocals, the harmonies, the percussion, the guitars. Music started to feel 3D to me again, which was an amazing feeling, and from there I started to be able to curate my listening experience based on my mood, something I used to love to do in my early 20s when I was going to gigs every weekend and exploring new music all the time.

I also made playlists each month. I’d add songs I loved throughout the month to this playlist, and then when I hit the first of the next month, I’d start adding to a new playlist. I picked nice images to go with them, and at the end of the year, compiled a 2018 playlist with all the songs I’d listened to and loved throughout the year on it. It’s a great way of keeping a kind of ‘journal’ — music is so evocative, you play a song back and you can remember where you were and what you were doing, even how you were feeling, when you were listening to it.

This is all really an extension of the checklist making/to-do list writing/planning thing that people with anxiety and OCD tend to do obsessively. Relating it to music allows an element of grounding and control over something, but turns the experience into an enjoyable one — something that you will benefit from, rather than suffer through.

3. As way to open things back up again

If you’re anything like me, when you are struggling with OCD and anxiety, the world can really feel like it’s closing in on you. Your thoughts are circular, repetitive, overwhelming. Your brain feels fried before you’ve even made it to work, and it’s incredibly hard to motivate yourself. Music can be an amazing way to open things back up again, to expand things just that bit more.

So, find an artist you love — that’s a great start. Then read interviews with them, watch clips of them online, read books about them if they’ve been written. Allow people’s creativity, and their modes of expression, to inspire you. Read the books they mention, listen to the artists that they’ve been influenced by, think about what these artists say and whether you agree with them.

People with OCD tend to have relatively obsessive personalities (shocker, right?), so why not find something that allows you to transfer your obsessive-compulsive tendencies over to it, and turn the obsessiveness into a positive, into a strength? Doing so means you are able to develop a vast depth of knowledge on a subject and amass a library of, say, interesting books and vinyl and bookmarked articles to read on the go. You’d be surprised at how much things start to open back up — ideas start coming with a bit more ease, you feel like your capacity to think new thoughts is expanding, and other people’s creativity begins to jump start your own.

I think this approach would ultimately work with any subject, but music is especially powerful because it taps so acutely into emotion and creativity as well, so it allows an exploration of those things at the same time: things that are often stifled when you’re just trying to keep your head above water managing mental health issues.

Let me know what you think. How do you use music to manage your mental health?

Nic Thompson

Written by

Creativity. Mental health. Music. Feminism. Books. Being outdoors.

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