By Ben Adams
CN: anxiety, depression, autism
I don’t know when it was that I realised music might be affecting my mental health. Music has always been a big part of my life, and I get through hours and hours of it every day; from folk to jazz to classical to ambient. For someone living with autism and mental health issues, it can be a much-needed comfort. Through all the ups and downs, I could listen to whatever I wanted. But then something changed. I became harsh and punished myself, the happy songs kept for when I was happy. When I was sad, the songs I would choose were the ones that would only take my worries and make them worse. I got trapped in a loop, listening to the same song for hours on end. I grew attached to sadness, and to sad music. Never could I just listen to a song and let the emotions leave, or turn it all off when the song finished.
Take Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; an album about depression and life in modern America, but one that could only remind me of the anxieties of my own past. “Cheer up honey, I hope you can, there is something wrong with me”. The words captured my experience of mental health, and indeed, of life in a world not made for me. Or take the long works of ambient music that I would work to; I would not allow myself to take a break or even get a drink until they had run their course and I had finished my work. Music was still central to my life but it had stopped being there solely to be enjoyed.
“I grew attached to sadness, and to sad music”
Already being interested in the emotional perspectives that the neurodiverse (those with conditions like ADHD, Autism, and so on) could lend to music, I considered what role my autism might have to play in all of this. As I’ve written elsewhere, the work of the composer Steve Reich has lent me a structure and calm stability, but it is possible that the relationship between my autism and music has a darker side. Despite there being little writing on the subject, a link would be no surprise; anxiety disorders are especially common among people on the autistic spectrum, affecting some two-fifths. For many of us, the experience of overthinking is constant – from panicking about the worst outcome in any given situation, to replaying past social interaction again and again in the fear of having made a mistake. When your mind makes you inclined to worry and you spend what feels like every waking hour being consumed by it, it should be no surprise that such worries might be made worse by music that plays on negative emotions. And none of this is helped by the fact that sad music is often spoken of as a therapeutic response to negative emotions, and something that should help.
There seems to be little research written specifically on music and the neurodiverse, but there is plenty of research that suggests media with a sad content can lead to worsened mood. Dr Sandra Garrido, a psychologist specialist on the emotional response to music, has said that for those who often find themselves overthinking, sad music is likely to worsen patterns of negative thoughts and make moods worse. A study from 2015 found that the use of music to express negative emotions could be linked with increased anxiety. It went on to suggest this strategy might worsen mental health more generally in the long-term, and can be linked to difficulty regulation emotions. Other studies have made similar findings – most people may feel attracted to media that makes them sad, but they soon feel a need to improve their mood, whereas those of us prone to worrying lack this motivation. While overthinking is not a trait that is in any way unique to those with autism or other neurological conditions, it is one which is very common among them, as are anxiety disorders and wider mental health problems. Many friends of mine with autism and ADHD have spoken of similar experiences; listening to sad music can actually make you more sad and anxious.
“I started to be more mindful of what I listened to and how it might tie in with my emotions”
This article, in some ways, presents the other side to music, emotion and neurodiversity. Despite the positives that music can bring to those with conditions like autism and ADHD, from the joy of pop music to the emotional release of punk, it’s clear that it also has its own unique and unwelcome side-effects. In my own case, I had to slowly grasp the harmful consequences of my music listening, and turn away from making myself sad. I started to be more mindful of what I listened to and how it might tie in with my emotions. A bit of sad music is fine, but putting one sad song on loop for three hours might not be a good idea. I began to let myself listen to happy music whenever I wanted, which, as you would expect, ended up improving my mood. Of course, I still get anxious and depressed, but realising that music made me personally more likely to feel that way has been incredibly helpful.
Music is, despite all of the above, a great thing. It is in the spaces between joyous celebrations and sad reflection that I feel it can be the most helpful; the kinds of records that you can relate to, that echo your own experiences, but still offer a sense of optimism when it is most needed. Where the singer-songwriter Neko Case’s 2013 album The Harder I Fight… laid bare the realities of depression and “wanting so badly not to be me”, it still found bittersweet resolution in Ragtime; an ode to music that brings relief in dark times. It is, after all the despair, a bold statement of self-worth and a reminder to hold on.
“Reveal myself when I’m ready.
I’ll reveal myself invincible soon.
I am one and the same. I am useful and strange.”
On a cold and dreary Wednesday afternoon in Cambridge, when I felt utterly defeated by anxiety and the stresses of work, it is this message which got me through the rest of the week. Music might bring sadness, but with a little awareness, it can just as soon be a beacon of hope — it is, in its own way, useful and strange.