If I was normal, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
In my last blog posting on anxiety—Jam Session: Understanding My Anxiety Through Basketball—I reflected on earlier stages of my life and how I stumbled upon coping strategies for my anxiety before I really understood what I was going through. In that piece the coping mechanism I reflected on was basketball, a sport which has been a huge part of my life since I was ten years old. In this blog I explore music as a powerful force in helping me not only to cope with my anxiety but also unlock some of the rarely-discussed superpowers that come with anxiety.
Generally I like my music with a hard edge, spanning genres from hip hop through to heavy metal, hardcore punk, and sections of the electronic dance music spectrum such as hard house, drum n bass and psy-trance. I remember trying to articulate my musical tastes to my Dad with the explanation that “I like sounds that are layered and immense.” Over the years I have often wondered why I am attracted to harder and more underground musical genres, but it is only very recently that I have come to an answer.
An article in The Conversation last year by University of Queensland psychology academics Genevieve Dingle and Leah Sharman on “problem music” such as rap and heavy metal piqued my attention…
“many problem music users engage in music listening to self-regulate their emotions and improve emotional wellbeing.”
I realised immediately that this is exactly what I have been doing since I was ten years old, when a friend lent me a cassette tape of Public Enemy’s classic rap album Fear of a Black Planet. Because I am wired all the time with anxiety I find hard and abrasive music calming. Take Strapping Young Lad’s intense track “All Hail the New Flesh”…if ever there was a song that accurately portrayed what it feels like inside to struggle with depression and anxiety, this is it. I have always found listening to heavy, fast, immense musical styles energising and a palliative for how exhausting the anxiety burden can be to live with on a day-to-day basis. Hard music provides a focal point for my sensory awareness, emotions and internal monologue. It was the mindfulness technique I discovered before I knew what mindfulness was.
I also realised that my transitions to liking new musical genres have tended to happen at times in my life when my emotional needs changed. For example, I discovered hip hop when I was in year six and it became the soundtrack for my life till I was about fifteen. Although my life as a middle class kid from an Australian country town had little in common with the streets of New York and Los Angeles, there was something about the outsider perspective and brazen defiance of rap music and Afro-American culture (particularly in the late-1980s and early-1990s before hip hop became mainstream) that resonated with how I was feeling about myself at the time. I started getting into heavy metal in late high school, the aggressiveness and power of metal matching a stage in my life journey where I began to come out of my shell more and push against the boundaries of my anxiety cage. My love for hardcore punk came to life when I started university study and began expanding my intellect. My tastes transitioned to electronic dance music in my early twenties when I needed a more positive and uplifting form of musical intensity as the soundtrack to my life.
In my darkest moments of self-doubt, frustration and depression, the music was there to pick me up and keep me going. Hard music helped me to feel powerful at those times in my life when I felt most powerless. The many people who have rubbished my musical tastes over the years—heavy musical styles tend not to be widely popular—did not realise the wound to my soul they were causing in doing so. Conversely, sharing my favourite songs with other people is one of the most powerful gifts I can give, because it is a gift that comes from the very fibre of my being.
Kick-Drum Therapy: Ben’s Hard Music Playlist
Unlocking My Anxiety Superpowers with Hard Music
In Jam Sesssion: Understanding My Anxiety Through Basketball, I described my baseline psychological state in the following terms…
“a heightened level of situational awareness, a couple of rungs below fight-or-flight but well above what would be considered a normal level of arousal. Because of my heightened baseline anxiety level, I have always felt uneasy in social situations because I am simultaneously intensely tuned in to everything going on around me and processing that sensory information within the rich high-resolution inner world of introvert.”
Interacting with the world in this way is frustrating, exhausting and often depressing, however, I have come to appreciate that it does come with certain advantages…what I call anxiety superpowers. Over time, my love for hard music has helped me to gradually unlock these anxiety superpowers. Indeed I could not have achieved my professional successes without them!
So what are they, and how did hard music help me to unlock them?
When you experience every living moment at a heightened level of situational awareness, you come to see the world around you with a higher level of resolution than others. My initial reflex was to attempt to switch off and tune out, to reduce the external stimulation I was exposed to. Gradually, however, I realised that this heightened situational awareness could help me to understand the complexity of my social environment. Hip hop music, in particular, helped me to unlock my powers of mindful observation and appreciate the positives as well as the negatives of experiencing life in high resolution.
It was through listening to hip hop artists like Public Enemy, KRS One and NWA, and not at school, where I first learned about race and class politics. Take NWA’s famous 1988 track “Fuck the Police” for example; most of my peers liked NWA for the swearing, but even as a kid I recognised something compelling in the lyrical content of the song, a direct and uncompromising critique of the conduct of the Los Angeles Police Department in poor and predominantly Afro-American enclaves of south central Los Angeles during the late-1980s. Decades before the “white wash” controversy at the 2016 Academy Awards, Public Enemy highlighted the issue of white cultural hegemony in the American movie industry in their track “Burn Hollywood Burn.” Through this music I became aware of racial prejudice and economic inequality in Australia and over time learned how to observe patterns of power and injustice in the society around me.
The hardcore punk scene in particular was a haven for edge-dwellers and it was here that I learned about Australian class politics and had my first exposure to LGBTQI issues. The song “Anti-Homophobe” by Brutal Truth is one of the fastest, hardest tracks I had ever heard and led me to question the homophobic tendencies of the hyper-masculine culture of the town I grew up in.
Critical and Analytical Thinking
Prior to the beginning of my lectures for my second-year Global Environmental Politics class I play a hip hop song from the late-1980s / early-1990s, a period which is often referred to as the “golden age of rap.” From the mid-1990s hip hop became a mainstream musical genre and increasingly captive to an inauthentic glamourisation of wealth, in addition to the violence, homophobia and misogyny that punctuated the genre. Over time I have come to critically reflect on these negative themes in hip hop, what those themes tell us about the social context from which the music emerges, and what we can do to address the underlying race, class and gender problems that the music reflects.
I use the “golden age of rap” as an analogy for the first golden age of environmental politics in the late 1980s / early 1990s, when governments appeared poised to take serious action to address global environmental degradation. Huge strides were made in environmental governance during this period, including the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer and the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This period culminated in the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and the signing of the Rio Conventions: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Yet just as hip hop was subverted and diluted as it became more mainstream through the mid-1990s, so too was global environmental governance as it became clear that the structural causes of environmental degradation would not be easily overcome (“changing light bulbs” is not enough), especially in light of the rear guard action by high-polluting industries against greater regulatory control on environmental grounds. I frame the hip hop analogy as an invitation to students to critically analyse the shortcomings of international environmental governance and the global environmental movement to help them appreciate the complexity of the environmental crisis, as well as to creatively explore new ways of addressing this problem.
Critically evaluating the structures of power that shape the menu of life choices open to individuals is an important skill, particularly at a time of increasing socio-economic change. Metal tracks like Napalm Death’s Instinct for Survival, Sepultura’s Refuse/Resist and Corporation Pull-in by Terrorizer were influential in helping me to cultivate my critical and analytical thinking abilities. As I got into the Aussie hardcore punk scene and its associate ‘zine culture I started to think global and head-bang local. The Spiral Objective label and zine were a key conduit in exposing me to bands like Price of Silence and Fallout with lyrical themes devoted to social justice issues.
This critical mind emerged from not wanting to accept that feeling lousy was the best it could get for me. It fuelled and urge to look for answers and that search for answers gave my life meaning. Hard music was the vehicle through which I combined the intellectual and emotional aspects of that search for meaning. The potent combination of the raw critical and analytical thinking powers derived from my love of this music with the rigour of university study in politics and international relations evolved into the research skills I draw on as an academic.
In permaculture, practitioners learn to appreciate the edge and value the marginal in agricultural systems, because the interface between things is a highly productive space where the most creative and exiting developments take place. This is true of social systems as well and music is no exception. Every mainstream genre of music was born as a creative new underground style that presented something new and different to the dominant styles of the time.
As an anxiety sufferer I have always felt awkward around other people and considered myself as an edge-dweller. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why non-mainstream harder styles of music have always appealed to me. Existing on the edge can be lonely, but with that loneliness comes an ability to evaluate one’s reality in different ways. Edge-dwellers tend not to be so invested in dominant systems of power and accepted ways of doing things, and thus can muster a greater capacity to envision different realities and creative new modes of practice.
I remember listening to the album “Music for the Jilted Generation” by The Prodigy during my heavy metal phase and being blown away by the sci-fi inspired soundscapes that this music generated in my mind. This was my first exposure to electronic dance music, which sowed the seeds of my ability to envision alternative visions of reality. As my love for electronic dance music evolved, so too did my love for dancing and the creative emotional outlet that the kinetic experience of unconstrained full-body movement provided. There is nothing quite like stomping out under the stars at an outdoor dance party for such emotional release.
More recently I have acquired a love for psy-trance, a genre of electronic dance music which evolved from 1970s psychedelic rock. The spiritual, cosmic and Earth connection themes of this genre resonated strongly with me at a time in my life where I was looking for ways of practicing sustainable living. It is no coincidence that my relationship with psy-trance emerged at the same time as began training in permaculture, which is the sustainable living methodology I have adopted to make a constructive contribution to food security, social justice and environmental regeneration in my community.
Reflecting on Hard Music as My Anxiety Medicine
This blog posting was inspired by an exercise I conducted on Facebook last year, where for eighty-three consecutive days I shared a song that blew me away the first time I heard it. These were not necessarily my favourite songs or the best songs, but songs which had an immediate profound impact on me. I shared songs in the chronological order in which I discovered them, beginning with Do Do Do, De Da Da Da by The Police (my Dad assures me this blew my mind when I was 18 months old). It was fun to share those musical memories, have others share their own favourite tracks and re-connect with old friends who were with me enjoying (or hating!) those tunes at the time. More importantly, it was through the process of sharing these songs that I started becoming more comfortable with sharing some of my experiences with anxiety and depression. I could not have come out publicly about my anxiety experiences if I had not warmed up to it through sharing these songs with my Facebook friends.
Along with basketball, my love affair with hard music has been my primary mechanism for coping with anxiety and depression. It has also blossomed into so much more, fueling my emotional and intellectual development through the realisation of my anxiety superpowers, leading me inexorably to where I am today. It is critical as an anxiety sufferer to reflect on all of the successes that I have achieved as a result of my anxiety superpowers, as well as the negatives that come with the anxiety burden. Anxiety and its associated superpowers are two sides of the same coin. It is only now, as I have started to own my experience with anxiety, that I have come to appreciate the silver lining in my anxiety cloud.
So to all the hip hop lovers, metal heads, ravers and other edge-dwellers out there, throw your hands in the air and scream “I’m not normal!” with pride!
Movie: Human Traffic
Documentary Series: Metal Evolution
Dr Keith Khan-Harris: Heavy Metal
Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture
Andre Lesté and John Rust. (1984) “Effects of dance on anxiety.” Perceptual and Motor Skills. 58(3), pp. 767-762.
Jonna K. Vuoskoski, William F. Thompson, Doris McIlwain, and Tuomas Eerola. (2011) “Who Enjoys Listening to Sad Music and Why?” Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, (29)3, pp. 311-317.
Sharman L and Dingle GA (2015) “Extreme metal music and anger processing.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 9:272. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00272.
Zoe E. Papinczak , Genevieve A. Dingle , Stoyan R. Stoyanov , Leanne Hides , Oksana Zelenko. (2015) “Young people’s uses of music for well-being.” Journal of Youth Studies. 18(9), pp. 1119-1134.
This first step is the hardest psychological barrier to overcome, but it will be the most beneficial. To start, see your local GP and/or get in contact with Lifeline or Beyond Blue.
If you are at LTU, the La Trobe University Counselling Service (for LTU students and staff) can also be a good first port of call. Other universities and education institutions have their own in-house counselling services.
These websites may also be helpful:
Really interesting piece Ben. Heavy layered, ‘immense’ music has the opposite effect on my own anxiety sending me instead into sensory overwhelm, but I like how you describe your experience. The exhaustion you describe while living with the cycles of anxiety is so familiar. I understand and hear you. Thanks for sharing. Sara 🙂
Thanks Sara. You make a good point, my experiences should not be considered as generalizable for all anxiety suffers. As you’ve pointed out, some of it people may relate to and some not.
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[…] and self-reliance. This self-reliance and the associated ability to get things done is one of my anxiety superpowers, without which I would not have achieved many of my life successes. However, as I explained […]
[…] and self-reliance. This self-reliance and the associated ability to get things done is one of my anxiety superpowers, without which I would not have achieved many of my life successes. However, as I explained above, […]