By Rachael Uris
As I was driving to my office one morning, I found myself anxious about the day ahead. My iPhone’s music was on random, and for some reason or another, every song that was coming on was screechy, abrasive—scratching against my skin like sandpaper. Not one to fiddle with my phone and drive, I finally turned my stereo off completely.
It was then, with the sounds of the wind through cracked windows and nothing more, that the songs of the evening before began to find a voice in my head. My husband had brought home the new record from The National, a band whose melodies had always felt to me like antacid to the heartburn of anxiety and stress. And something about the experience of the band on vinyl had intensified this soothing effect; while I knew that having the MP3 version of the new album would have been helpful for my short drive, there was something irreplaceable about the experience of the record-listening ritual that was a powerful grounding force in my life.
Thus began a mental exploration of why I have come to prefer records, and how they have contributed to my mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. As I dug into my experiences, I was surprised to find that the techniques I commonly recommended to my clients with anxiety had also played an integral part in my record collecting and appreciating.
Here are five ways in which putting the needle to the groove can help with anxiety and other mental health issues:
1. Vinyl offers a fuller sensory experience.
Grounding in the senses is one of the best things we can do to pull ourselves out of panic, worry and anxiety. When our heads are spinning and we are disconnected from our bodies, one of the safest and easiest ways to ground ourselves is through the senses. Some suggestions I often offer include aromatherapy, a hot bath, hand-washing the dishes, or preparing a meal. These are all activities that bring us into our sensory experience through touch, taste, smell, sight and sound. If meditating, or even paying attention to the feeling of our anxiety, is too overwhelming, grounding with sensory experience is a great way to be present without feeling overwhelmed.
When we listen to a record, we are creating a fuller sensory experience. Music aficionados will tell you that the quality and depth of the music itself is unparalleled on vinyl compared to other forms (especially MP3s). Give yourself the treat of a sound meditation to try to hear the difference. Can you practice focusing all of your attention on the nuances of the music? Let them be the anchor into the present moment, coming back to them each time your mind drifts away. Let the pops, static, and other surface noise be part of the experience.
With vinyl, we also give ourselves the chance to explore the sensory experience that reaches far beyond sound. Having a large, tangible object, whose songs we can actually see (and that a needle can feel) engages us in a complex sensory experience. Notice the weight of the record itself, and the type of paper that was carefully selected to create the jacket. Lose your eyes in the cover art and the special creative additions that only the record-owners get to see. Read the acknowledgements on the big screen. What’s its temperature? Smell? Acknowledge all the extra sensory details you may have missed with an MP3 download. Enjoy the experience of setting your record down on the turntable, watching it spin, and listening for the noise it makes when you slowly lower the needle.
2. Listening to a record creates ritual.
Rituals are practices we make for ourselves that act as a grounding force in the midst of chaos. In a more formal sense, they are acts we use to acknowledge the meaning in life events, to remember the past, or to set intentions for the future. They allow us to celebrate and also to grieve.
When we invest in art, we invest in our own spirit. We invest in our inspiration, in our inner child, and in our relationship with Life in the purest sense of the word. We are telling that creative being dwelling deep inside our hearts: “You are important. You are worth something.”
When we set the intention to solidify our relationships with a wedding, for example, the ritual of the ceremony and the celebration helps to support that intention by making it more real. So too in our everyday lives we can set intentions through ritual. Having a calming, reoccurring practice to go to when we feel anxious can be immensely helpful. Anxiety thrives on chaos and the unknown. When we have something orderly and predictable to do, we are more able to transition from anxious to peaceful.
So what makes listening to records ritualistic? There is a certain complexity and repetition to the experience. Flip through your collection. Let yourself be drawn to the art of a certain album. Pull it out slowly and inspect it for dust. Set it down on the turntable and brush it off gently. Turn the table on and carefully lower the needle. Listen for the end of the side, and go through the motions of flipping the record. While the songs change, there is continuity in the experience—a set of familiar actions we engage in over and over. When we are lost in a mental tailspin of worry or panic, physical actions, especially predictable ones, can make the present moment a little less scary to step into.
When we listen to a record, we inevitably must put more intention into engaging with the music. If we leave the room and forget to turn it off, we are going to damage our needle and the record itself by leaving it to spin. If we get lost in the task of doing something else, the music will stop; there is no repeat mode or day-long playlist option. There is also no random button; we have to take a moment to think about what we really want to listen to. If we hate a song, we have to move the needle over it ourselves, which may mean getting out of our seat. We tend not to listen to records unless we really want to connect with the music, simply because it is a lot of work (comparatively, anyway). Being forced to acknowledge the purpose of music listening, such as soothing anxiety or seeking inspiration, helps to make our intention a reality.
3. Record collecting helps us practice nurturance.
Ok, so perhaps you aren’t quite ready for a dog. Maybe at this point in life, even a plant feels like too much responsibility. But having something around that needs some TLC helps us connect with our inner nurturer, which in turn helps us to nurture ourselves. One reason we tend to develop an emotional or spiritual relationship with a record is because of the time, energy and sensitivity it takes to care for it. A record has to be stored and handled with care; its quality and value depend on it. We have to focus our attention fully on holding it and placing it on the turntable in such a way that we refrain from dropping or fingerprinting it. It can take time and energy to dust and clean records, and must be done in precise and mindful ways. The packaging of a record is also delicate and needs a lot of love.
We tend not to listen to records unless we really want to connect with the music, simply because it is a lot of work.
Treating something in a gentle and patient way helps us learn how to be patient and gentle with ourselves. Taking care of something in a way that reflects our appreciation of its value can help us to find and appreciate our own value. When we are better able to nurture ourselves, we have a greater ability to self-soothe, a key skill in working through anxiety.
4. Vinyl slows us down.
Yes, you have to get up to flip the record. Yes, you have to scroll through your collection with more than the circle of your thumb to find what you would like to listen to. Yes, you have to alphabetize your collection by hand if you want to keep it organized. And yes—you have a physical object to buy and care for.
The rituals, sensory experiences and care of record-appreciating make it harder to rush through the experience on auto-pilot. They slow us down, like cooking a meal slows us down when we have spent the week swinging by the fast-food drive-through. When we eat a meal we have cooked ourselves, we may feel compelled to eat it with our undivided attention, appreciating its subtleties. This too can happen with the purchase of a record. We paid for it, we must care for it, and we are forced to be more engaged with it. I notice that while I will cook or clean or scroll through Facebook while I have my MP3 player going, something about taking the time to select and put on a record makes me stop, sit and focus my attention on listening. I am less inclined to multi-task or use music as a background experience. Playing records feels too inconvenient for that.
Anxiety thrives on multi-tasking and autopilot modes of being. The subconscious belief that there could always be more we could be doing, that we can somehow be more productive, can ramp up anxiety because we never feel good enough. We worry that our failure is because of our own shortcomings. Taking a break from hyperproductivity, giving ourselves permission simply to be good enough, can help to break this destructive thought pattern. Ironically, it also helps us be more productive when we do go back to getting things done. When we let go of over-multitasking and practice focusing on one thing at a time, we tend to do a better job and feel less stressed. We also prevent ourselves from burning out by taking a rest from productivity to recharge our mental and emotional batteries.
5. Treating ourselves to a gift helps us to cultivate self-love.
I know that people do purchase MP3s and CDs, though I will say that the finding it for free is certainly a temptation. And even when we don’t go that route, we may subscribe to Internet sites or download apps where we can legitimately listen to music without owning it.
But there is something to owning records. They are finite. Many have the number or a message hand-carved into the vinyl. They are collectable and valuable. You also get to show your support and appreciation to the artist by buying the more complex and labor-intensive version of their product (plus, most records tend to come with a free MP3 download, so you’ll still have the chance to enjoy them in the car when the time is right to do so).
And even if you buy that old record at a garage sale or inherit it from your parents, that’s kind of cool too, isn’t it? You get to wonder about its journey through time—where all those scratches came from. You get to think about when it first came out—maybe over 50 years ago—what was going on in the world then.
So when we treat ourselves to a gift—something we buy for ourselves in order to improve the quality of our lives and engage in connection with the creativity and inspiration of the universe—we are practicing self-love. When we invest in art, we invest in our own spirit. We invest in our inspiration, in our inner child, and in our relationship with Life in the purest sense of the word. We are telling that creative being dwelling deep inside our hearts, “you are important. You are worth something.” Investing in the spiritual part of ourselves is a powerful antidote to fear and anxiety. Anxiety thrives when our spirit feels starved and depleted. Just think of those times when you have felt highly spiritually or creatively inspired. How did fear, worry, and anxiety hold up? Next time you feel this way, try to find those anxious components of your mind, and see how they shift.
While there is no quick and easy fix for anxiety, cultivating practices that help to slow down, engage our senses, and connect us with creative inspiration are essential for a well-stocked emotional medicine cabinet. Investing in vinyl records is one of many ways we can soothe ourselves, bring ourselves out of anxiety, and engage our spirit.