How Music Helped Me Control My Anxiety

With her anxiety levels at an all-time high, Jennifer McShane didn't know how to cope. Until she rediscovered the beloved music of her childhood.


My mother would say I was born a worrier. Years back, I would have scoffed at the notion. "I take everything in my stride! I have expert coping skills! My glass is always half full!" said my inner teenage voice smugly. For a time, that really was the case. From 16 -28, I did take everything in my stride: The Cerebral Palsy (and the daily fight with my body to just work so I could get on with things), college, career. I could cope. I felt invincible; there was nothing I couldn't do if I set my mind to it. Only in the last two years, I found my outlook changing from a sunny disposition to one wrought with anxiety. My self-assuredness became clouded with a deep sense of Imposter Syndrome; I wasn't trying hard enough to accomplish things - not just in my job, but in life. "Don't be ridiculous, surely you know you're just winging it?" said the same voice, older and this time with a sneer.

What had happened to me? I had started to listen to - and worse believe - that sneer, which deserved nothing more than a good kick up the arse. I want to say it was some tragic event that kick-started my descent because I feel that would justify my having to write this, but it wasn't. It was just life taking its toll unexpectedly. I had gone from being a dreamer, content that life would just work itself out to being dosed in reality: certain things (marriage, kids etc.) wouldn't just 'happen' without a lot of hard work and effort, I had chosen a highly stressful career (and was really feeling the pressure), and my energy was deteriorating naturally at a rate that shocked me. So imagine my surprise when I discovered I wasn't handling it all that well? I had so much going for me; I was lucky. But that's the thing about anxiety; it doesn't listen to reason or take a life-altering event for it to rear its head - something that I was surprised to realise - an unexpected change in the pace of even daily activities can leave you feeling like you're smothering and treading through superglue.

After a fretful few weeks of almost no sleep, arguments at home and trying to work and even eat with my stomach twisted in knots, I began to despair. As I considered seeking some professional help amidst other life changes, a day rummaging through a severely packed drawer brought about a surprise: my first-ever MP3 player with (much to my delight) all the music still on it. It wasn't even an iPod (remember this was an era pre-Apple); it was a Sony variation, a slip of a thing; silver-chromed, pocket-sized and with a cracked screen.

Oh, how I had loved it. And at times, wanted to smash it. The frustration trying to get the songs to load, the way it would freeze at random and just turn itself off, just as I was all set to power through my beloved Britney Spears playlist (she was my teen idol. She wasn't cool but I didn't care). A brief scroll and the memories returned: me, thirteen in casts from the tips of my toes to the top of my thighs, unable to talk for at least six weeks surrounded by CDs, the Pulp Fiction theme getting blasted from our living room by Dad early Saturday mornings with a 'WILL YOU TURN IT DOWN?! shriek from Mam and my miserable attempt to tape always fuzzy sounding songs from the radio. Then there was the Trip I'd take every Saturday with friends. Anxious to arrive at our tiny, go-to music shop - I still mourn the closure of Tape2Tape - so I could buy the Single of the Week. An actual album purchase was a big deal back then -  a treat reserved only for Christmas.

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In those times, music was my solace, my gateway to another place. My teenage years were hard but not in the way you're thinking. Yes there were the spots and the glasses (pictures of me from 12-21 are locked in a dark place where no one shall ever see them) but also the 4-5 huge operations; months in casts unable to walk or go to school, the sitting on our living room couch glued to MTV as I awaited the next challenge: learning to walk all over again. I sought comfort in music; losing myself for hours in lyrics and melodies and naturally, their accompanying music videos. I remember never feeling anxious then because I had my prized music collection close by; whenever I'd get to a point that was too difficult for me to cope with emotionally my CD - and then MP3  player - would come out and after 20 minutes, my equilibrium would be magically restored.

When had that stopped? Until recently my music player would lie idle for days - that was unnatural in my world (I would listen hourly if I could get away with it). It should have been the first warning sign that something was amiss. So I decided to crank up the volume and made my way through all the playlists again - each as cheesy and 90s' as you can possibly get: Jumpin' Jumpin by Destiny's Child and N'Sync's Bye Bye Bye are top of two called 'My Fav Tracks'.

I still can't fully explain why music, in particular, has always had this transformative affect on me. Is it the catchy beat of my Taylor Swift playlist? Or the emotional depth of the orchestral arrangements used on my favourite Within Temptation track? Perhaps it's because I've always thought of the artists' songs like old friends; relatable, comforting and always there when life got too stressful.

Almost as soon as I turned my little listening project into a daily ritual, I began to feel better: less anxious, less burdened by an invisible weight. I got lost in music.

And as it was before,  I felt less alone.

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