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7 Songs My Mental Health Is Grateful For

They are a somewhat embarrassing musical map of my mental health. But I’m grateful for them.

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At this moment, I have 87 playlists on my Spotify account. In the past, I had over 600 songs on my iPod shuffle. There are countless others that I will refer to as ‘my favourite song’ when I hear the first few seconds begin to play in a restaurant, or the supermarket, or in someone else’s mouth when they start to sing at the top of their lungs. And it sounds annoyingly cliche to say I just like music, or to answer the question of ‘what do you listen to?’ with ‘well, just a bit of everything, really.’ But it’s kind of the truth.

More specifically though, my relationship with music is tied to trying to mark exact feelings with groupings of bands and genres.

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It’s how I work things out. My many playlists have something to do with trying to name a feeling and then turning that feeling into a radio station. My own body and its history are what I rely on to pick up a good frequency.

When I’m anxious, which is often, there are some songs I come back to more than others.

They are the songs that I can place difficult mornings, panic attacks, existential crises, and sleepless nights with. They're a somewhat embarrassing musical map of my mental health. But I’m grateful for all 7 of them.

1. What's Up - 4 Non Blondes

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This song has always had a special kind of healing power over me. It’s an immediate calming force when the tendency to overthink kicks in and the significance of tiny details is exaggerated in my mind. It spans subtly hurtful interactions and the inability to breathe in spaces that seem daunting and scary and intimidating. And it doesn’t even have to actively be playing in my headphones to calm me down anymore. My brain, as charmed by it on the first listen as it is on the fiftieth, has stored all the details away.

The repetitive guitar strokes, both gentle and insistent. The lyrics that sound like they belong to the entire world. The unifying question of a chorus (‘what’s going on?’), and the passion in Linda Perry’s voice. After a few years of playing it on walks I took on particularly anxious evenings, my body now knows it by heart. There is a feeling of understanding that ripples through What’s Up: the weight of the world and the smallness of who I am in comparison made much easier to bear as it plays.

2. Street Lights - Kanye West

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‘Let me know. Do I still have time to grow?’ The opening to Street Lights reminds me of a winter walking home alone during my final year at university. It reminds me of uncertainty and fear over the unpredictability of what happens next. The anxiety of the next chapter. But there’s something in the way the song climbs over electronic discordance, the fuzzy edges of Kanye’s voice, and the stabilising drum beat in the chorus that make it feel helpful. Street Lights is poignant, and careful. It questions itself, and though it sounds lonely, I like that it also feels like the content of everyone’s mind at some point: needing to know what happens next, being terrified of things not working out, and knowing that all anyone can do is wait to find out.

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3. Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales - Car Seat Headrest

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I used to listen to this song every morning. It starts off small, the tiniest voice, almost suppressing itself, before it gets big and strange and beautiful. There’s something about the way that it opens up. There's a raw honesty there, one that always made me feel a bit braver about waking up and facing the day.

Singer Will Toledo talks about his experience of mental health and depression. His thoughts are spread out over metaphors about cars and whales, but the feeling prompted by Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales isn’t confusion. It feels more like being seen in your weakest moments, like hearing feelings that don’t often leave the mind be acknowledged in public. There's an intimacy, one that is beautifully brought to life by glittering electric guitars. On those difficult mornings, that feeling of being seen whilst you struggle, and implicitly encouraged by those that sound like they understand, always helped.

4. White Ferrari - Frank Ocean

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Something about White Ferrari, the quietness, and the delicate peace that’s created in those 4 minutes, makes it feel other-worldly. It’s the exact feeling that’s needed when everything feels like too much and very little makes sense. Like, that time I had a panic attack in a public library and disappeared into the bathroom to collect myself. Taught to recognise working hard and productivity as measures of my own self-worth, it was a good thing that day to return to my desk, pack up my things, and just go home. I kept my head down and shuffled my music, playing the quietness of White Ferrari at full volume in my headphones. As if I could switch out how loud everything else felt: friendly voices all around me, and the beat of my own heart. In my ears though, Frank’s voice looped over itself, the rhythm of his words easy and comforting. When the pitch of his voice rises and falls away, giving way to Justin Vernon’s vocals, it’s difficult to focus on anything else. Especially when you need to not be thinking for a few minutes. Especially when you’re looking for something to disappear into. White Ferrari helped me with that.

5. Vienna - Billy Joel

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Vienna by Billy Joel plays in 13 Going On 30 when Jennifer Garner’s character returns to her childhood home and is hit with the fact that she’s an adult now. Or, a 13 year old in a 30 year old woman’s body. Either way, the scene is pretty emotional and the metaphor at the heart of the film is shown more obviously. Jennifer Garner slumps down in her closet and cries for her inner child. She cries for all the mistakes that are exposing her as a pretend-adult. It’s one of those ‘I-can’t-win’ moments. It’s also incredibly relatable because it captures the aimlessness of growing up and not having all of the answers provided for you anymore.

I think there will always be moments that make you feel like everyone else is much better at being an adult than you. When they arrive, I’m reminded of Billy Joel’s words, and the sentiment in that one scene: ‘Slow down, you’re doing just fine, you can’t be everything you want to be before your time.’ It makes me cry every time. Vienna feels less like a song and more like an older, instructive reality check from someone who cares about you - who recognises your efforts even if you don’t yourself.

6. Now That I'm Older - Sufjan Stevens

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One time, I played this song multiple times a day for an entire week. Slammed with work, social events with new friends, first encounters with important people, plus my family calling me to talk through some big issues, and my sisters’ wedding on the cards, I was anxious as fuck. But there was something about this song. There was something about the first time I went back to it after almost a year, and how it made everything feel less pressing.

Sufjan’s understanding of the difficulty of things changing really shines in the complexity of Now That I’m Older. The long intro sounds like it’s coming from an empty church corridor. It leads into the soft whine of his voice. The intersecting layers took me out of my body and my worries for a little while. lt almost made the horror of growing up, of balancing a billion things, and attempting confidence in doing that, feel manageable.

7. Sun In An Empty Room - The Weakerthans

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This is the first song I listened to after I went to my first counselling session for my anxiety. Even though I cried throughout that hour, and said like, 3 intelligible sentences, I knew that showing up for myself that day was something that I could always be proud of. Hearing this song as I left the building made the moment even more precious.The constant repetition of the phrase ‘sun in an empty room’, referencing an Edward Hopper painting, made me understand all the good I’m capable of, no matter what I falsely thought of myself then. High-spirited and stuffed full of springy guitars, to me, Sun In An Empty Room is now even warmer than its own imagery. That warmth doesn’t die, no matter how many times I replay it.

Listen to the full playlist:

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To learn more about anxiety, check out the resources at the National Institute of Mental Health here.

And if you need to talk to someone immediately, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. Suicide helplines outside the US can be found here.

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