We’ve all witnessed this scene. We are at a party or family function. There’s a DJ. The music is too loud to talk. The tables are those huge, round ones that mean nobody is close enough to connect. A lot of people look bored and flat.
And then the DJ puts a new song on.
Suddenly, eyes widen, people spring to their feet, faces smile. “I bloody love this song!!”
Next thing you know, everyone is on the dance floor happily strutting their stuff. What a transformation!
This is the power of music to change our psychological state.
The ability to change our state is one of the most important powers we can develop.
Physiologically, we only have three states. We are either feeling
- safe and okay,
- feeling unsafe and flooded with panicky energy, or
- feeling unsafe but drained of energy.
When we are safe and okay, it allows us to connect with others. We can feel safe and okay in a chilled place, or we can feel safe and okay in a motivated and excited place.
This isn’t so much about emotion and vibe. It’s about whether we feel safe or not.
When we don’t feel safe, connection isn’t possible. We revert to patterns of protection instead. Our body takes over in service of our survival in one of two ways
Firstly, it floods us with so much energy that we don’t know what to do with it. This is the state that has us feeling restless, panicked and anxious.
It’s sensible that your body does this for you given it feels unsafe. It’s protecting you. It’s giving you all the energy you need to run away or fight whatever you need to fight.
Once you’ve dealt with the problem, you can come back into feeling safe again – much like a gazelle who has escaped the hunting lion.
If the problem is not dealt with and we stay feeling unsafe, the body can then shut us down of energy.
This is where we go into a state of freeze or withdrawal. We feel numb or depressed. We want to hunker down under the duvet and not see anyone for a while. We feel drained.
This is our oldest evolutionary defence mechanism dating back around half a billion years. In a time when many predators only saw based on movement, being scared stiff was helpful to any animal that was prey.
This is how our nervous system works. It is not a malfunction.
We are ok, then our body registers unsafety and moves us into one of the other states. It is trying to protect us, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
Knowing these three states means that we can check in with ourselves and see where we are on the body’s ladder.
Are we okay, at the top of the evolutionary ladder?
Or are we a few rungs down the ladder into panic?
Or are we near the bottom of the ladder in shutdown?
If we are not okay, we know to start taking gentle steps to move back up the ladder.
The body chooses our place on the ladder without consulting our thinking brain. But once it has chosen, we can coax it back up again.
There are many ways to do this, but music is a quick and powerful way to change state.
When you feel in a state of unsafety, ask yourself what music your nervous system needs to get back up the ladder.
Experiment with song types and see what works. Try them out.
Sometimes you’ll be panicky and you’ll need to convert that energy positively with something lively.
Other times, you’ll feel anxious and will need something to soothe you instead.
When in shutdown, a gentle return to energy is helpful to get you moving back up the ladder.
Check in with yourself, and experiment with music. Build your own playlist for each of the states you’re in.
You may end up with a playlist for panicky that needs to release the energy, a playlist for panicky that wants to be calmed, and a playlist for when you are shut down and need to re-emerge.
For instance, a study found that Only Time by Enya was more effective than any other record tested at restoring calm when feeling panicky. I find her other music has a similar effect.
I notice that my own nervous system often needs a burst of positive energy to get me climbing that ladder.
So I have developed a collection of 50 songs to get you started. Remember that this is my list which works for me. It is not a universal thing.
So edit it, prune it, add to it. It’s simply a starting point of songs that bring me back up the ladder, so you may find a host of songs in there that do the same for you.
Your list will inevitably be different to mine, and your lists may be different depending on your current psychological state.
Notice that I’ve ensured the lyrics are as upbeat as the songs. This is deliberate.
Don’t include lyrics that invite you back down the ladder. There’s lots of sad songs out there. They’re fine for sitting with the feelings. But when you need to get back into the safety of okayness, make sure the lyrics invite you there too.
Oh, and sing along too. Singing is a proven way to move you up the ladder. It engages the breath in such a way that it switches on your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve acts as an elevator that takes you right back up to the top.
Here’s my playlist for you in no particular order. Guilty pleasures happily included :
1. Here Comes The Sun – Richie Havens
2. Don’t Stop – Fleetwood Mac
3. Take It Any Way You Want It – The Outlaws
4. Hold On Tight – ELO
5. Accentuate The Positive – Bing Crosby
6. The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades – Timbuk 3
7. Happy Radio – Edwin Starr
8. Happy – Pharrell Williams
9. You Can Call Me Al – Paul Simon
10. Girls Just Want To Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper
11. I Can See Clearly Now – Jimmy Cliff
12. Alright – Supergrass
13. Walking On Sunshine – Katrina & The Waves
14. All Right Now – Free
15. Daydream Believer – The Kinks
16. Come On Eileen – Dexy’s Midnight Runners
17. All You Need Is Love – The Beatles
18. Dance To The Music – Sly And The Family Stone
19. One Love – Bob Marley
20. Best Day Of My Life – American Authors
21. The Walker – Fitz and the Tantrums
22. Chelsea Dagger – The Fratellis
23. Eye of the Tiger – Survivor
24. All About That Bass – Meghan Trainer
25. Budapest – George Ezra
26. Pack Up – Eliza Doolittle
27. JCB – Nizlopi
28. I’m Sitting On Top Of The World – Al Jolson
29. Delaney’s Donkey – Val Doonican
30. I Feel Good – James Brown
31. Wonderful Life – Ace of Base
32. What A Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
33. Top Of The World – The Carpenters
34. Apple Jack – Dolly Parton
35. Keep On Movin – Five
36. Man & Dog – Loudon Wainwright III
37. I’m So Excited – The Pointer Sisters
38. When You’re Smiling – Louis Armstrong
39. Fantastic Day – Haircut 100
40. Hay Wrap – The Saw Doctors
41. Real Gone Kid – Deacon Blue
42. Praise You – Fat Boy Slim
43. What A Beautiful Day – The Levellers
44. I’m Too Sexy – Right Said Fred
45. Bright Side Of The Road – Raul Malo, Pat Flynn, Rob Ickes
46. Shiny Happy People – REM
47. Blackpool Fool – Frank Sidebottom
48. Don’t Stop Me Now – The Queen
49. David Watts – The Jam
50. What A Time – Alun Parry (yeah me! Well I just had to!)
And remember, this isn’t about musical taste. It’s about state change. Let me know what works for you.Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice