Do you ever wonder why after a break up people listen to sad love songs? What about how upbeat music makes it a little easier to clean the house? There are neurological reasons for these phenomena and when we better understand them we can harness the healing power of music and make it even more effective.
Humans have a deep connection to music. We use it to get through difficult times, to celebrate special occasions, to dance to, and even to help us fall asleep.
Therapists like to talk about listening to music as a good coping skill. I agree wholeheartedly, but let’s talk about why and how you can amplify this tool in order to best serve you.
Our nervous system has three neural states or “feeling” states that it moves in and out of throughout the day: optimal arousal (calm, vital), high arousal (anxious, restless), low arousal (sad, stuck). They vary in degrees of duration and intensity. For example, we might feel only slightly restless, but not completely flooded with anxiety.
If your nervous system is well regulated, you likely move fluidly through these states and spend most of your time in optimal arousal. If your nervous system is chronically dysregulated, you may not spend much time in optimal arousal at all and cycle between highs and lows. We want to find ways to move ourselves back into a regulated state and music is one of our most important tools.
Our ears have a direct link to the nervous system and subtle parts of hearing can be impacted by trauma. Listening to music that “moves” you can help stimulate movement in the nervous system.
As humans we need two primary things, we need to feel understood, and we need to feel better when we don’t feel good. Music helps us with both of these basic needs.
Think about music as a way to feel validated when needed and shift our feeling state when needed.
When we are feeling sad or angry we need to feel understood and validated in those feelings. But as a society we are very uncomfortable with bad feelings. Sometimes if you turn to a friend or family member they go into “fix it” mode or “cheer up” mode. It comes from a good place, but it misses our need for attunement. Music doesn’t do that, music feels with us.
Music is also a way to shift our neural state if we are feeling stuck in it and desire an adjustment rather than to be understood. It is very common for me to turn on an upbeat song as a motivator.
I’ve provided some examples of songs. You may consider making these categories (using titles that resonate with you) into Spotify playlists in order to have them available anytime you need them:
Songs to Upregulate (move out of low arousal into optimal arousal)
You Make My Dreams (Come True) by Hall & Oates
Good as Hell by Lizzo
Raise Your Glass by Pink
Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen
Africa by Toto
Songs to Downregulate (move out of high arousal into optimal arousal)
I’ll Follow the Sun by The Beatles
At This Point in My Life by Tracey Chapman
I Shall Not Walk Alone by Ben Harper
And So It Goes by Billy Joel
Wildflowers by Tom Petty
Songs to Regulate (move into optimal arousal)
Shelter From the Storm by Bob Dylan
Beautiful by Carole King
Three Little Birds by Bob Marley
Both Sides Now by Jonie Mitchell
Up the Ladder to the Roof by The Supremes
Songs to Resonate with Hypoarousal
Make You Feel My Love by Adele
Operator by Jim Croce
Purple Rain by Prince
Black (featuring Norah Jones) by Danger Mouse, Danielle Luppi, Norah Jones
The Stone by Dave Matthews Band
Songs to Resonate with Hyperarousal
Under Pressure by David Bowie
Breathin’ by Ariana Grande
Anxiety by Julia Michaels (with Selena Gomez)
Son of a Bitch by Nathanial Rateliff & The Night Sweats
Perfume by Britney Spears
Songs to Resonate with Dysregulation
The Story by Brandi Carlile
People Like Us by Kelly Clarkson
Shake It Off by Florence + The Machine
Lost Stars by Adam Levine
Happy & Sad by Kasey Musgraves
Songs to Amplify Optimal Arousal
Hallelujah, I Love Her So by Ray Charles
I Like It by The Chicks
Dance Again by Jennifer Lopez
Thank You by Alanis Morrisette
Rainbow Connection by The Muppets
A fun game I like to play with my Spotify playlist. I have a playlist that includes songs I love from most of these categories. Sometimes I just ask in my mind, “What do I need to hear today.” It’s not magic, I’m not psychic. It’s a game of synchronicity that usually resonates deeply with my current feeling state. Sometimes it doesn’t, but that only encourages me to seek out a song or playlist that will.
Comment below with the songs that help your nervous system.
"Music can heal the wounds which medicine cannot touch." - Debasish Mridha
I'm Kerry (She/Her/Hers) and I am a licensed therapist, writer & speaker. This is a positive space focused on how to thrive in any situation and the transformative power of suffering.