How music helps me fight anxiety, depression and Emetophobia
Since I was a child I used to love music. I remember inventing songs before going to sleep, driving my brother crazy. When I liked a song, I was able to listen to it a billion times without ever getting bored of it. Music seemed to be embossed in my life for as long as I can remember. Whenever my father was around there was music in every room of the house, always blasting away at full volume. I loved how music affected people. It made them smile, sing and dance along. Music seemed to have the power to lift people’s spirits but also to make them cry. I found something so magical and touching about people being moved by a song.
Very quickly in my life I developed a passion for singing, unfortunately quite unsuccessfully, which didn’t seem to stop me from singing from the top of my lungs as if there was no tomorrow, or neighbours for that matter. On the other hand, luckily I had quite a knack for dancing and playing piano. I pursued the latter for ten years before my love for classical music was replaced by a burning passion for punk music. But even then, when I turned to punk and rock music, I was still getting so much out of it. I actually believe, at that stage of my life, that that was the exact kind of music I needed. I was angry, and that type of music helped me to let it out, to vent all my anger and frustration. I always turned to music, whether to celebrate a success, to vent anger or to cry my broken heart out.
There were occasions when I clearly remember music being practically banned from the house; in my childhood during wartime; during times of serious illnesses and after tragic losses in the family. I learnt that in such occasions people found it inappropriate, and perhaps even disrespectful, to listen to music. The absence of music made those times in my life even harder as music was a way of coping and a way of dealing with emotions, whether positive or negative. Music was like a shelter, and it had the power to make me smile when I needed to smile or sob when I desperately needed to let it all out. Banning music in times of trouble didn't make any sense to me as those were the times when music was needed the most. I even remember old movies when they used to send singers into war camps to perform for the soldiers in order to lift their spirits, even if it was just for a brief while.
In time, I understood music was an incredibly underestimated tool, one that had a healing power, which few people seemed to recognise or use appropriately. I know music therapy exists but I was never lucky enough to witness it myself. However, I’ve witnessed people with severe disabilities responding to nothing else but music, which seemed to relax their muscles and put a smile on their face when nothing else seemed to be able to achieve that.
There are many studies that prove that music decreases anxiety and stress levels by stimulating the secretion of happy hormones. And yet most people seem embarrassed to sing or dance or even play an instrument if they don’t believe they have a real and acknowledged talent for it. It is such a shame, as I don’t believe music is made just for talented people. Music is meant to be listened to and enjoyed by all people, no matter how silly it might make them sound or look. I’m not telling you should go in the street and sing from the top of your lungs, but who can stop you from doing so in your own home? The only person that can do that is you, and that’s usually due to an inherent sense of embarrassment, a feeling that can be silenced, especially if you play the music loud enough!
Due to my struggle with Emetophobia (an intense and irrational fear of vomiting), and a history of often feeling sick in public, I never liked being at the centre of attention. Having a bunch of people all looking at me used to send me straight into a panic mode. Yet, when I’d go out dancing, which in my younger years was very often, I used to be the first one on the dance floor and the last one to leave. When I danced something inexplicable would happen to me. I would transform myself into something else. I would become less self-conscious, less concerned of what people might think, less inhibited and more confident. Today I think dancing used to make me feel empowered and it freed me from whatever was weighing on my mind. The music was louder than the noise of my own worries and concerns. Dancing was like being on a high, while being completely sober. And no, I never needed alcohol or any other substances to get into that state as Emetophobia forced me to stop drinking alcohol when I was 21 because of my intense fear of feeling sick.
When I finished university, I moved to a different country and getting used to a new culture and a new environment was incredibly difficult for me. My battle with Emetophobia became stronger as I left my comfort zone behind and struggled to find my place in this new world. Gradually I started going out less, especially avoiding crowded and loud places, as these would often trigger my panic attacks, which were already at an all-time high. I still listened to music, as I did every single day of my life, but somewhere along the way I stopped singing and dancing. I was depressed and my Emetophobia was getting so much worse that I soon found myself having cut out of my life everything I used to love and enjoy, without even noticing it. I spent years getting worse and falling deeper in the hole of my condition, to the point where I could hardly hear the music at all. My mind was full of never ending worries of whether I would be sick, how I would cope if it were to happen and whether I would survive. At one point, not even music seemed to do the trick anymore, but only because I didn't allow it. In the desperate attempt to keep myself "safe" from any harm I gradually stopped living altogether. It's ironic that my fear of dying made me stop living.
Something changed when my husband and I purchased our house, a house I fell in love with at first sight, and I immediately knew that that would become my home. In this house, I felt I could be myself and I quickly started rediscovering the things I used to enjoy like clay, painting and music. And one day it just hit me. I heard a song I used to love and I remembered that little girl breaking neighbour’s eardrums with her poor but incredibly confident vocal performances. In that moment, I realised that I had allowed Emetophobia to take music away from me and the magical effect it used to have on me. From that moment on, I started pushing the volume a little higher every day, but it took some time to feel confident enough to start singing again as I was no longer used to the sound of my own voice. Emetophobia had a tendency of silencing me and my needs in a variety of ways; denying me to enjoy music was just one of the many ways, but one I was suddenly determined to put an end to.
Becoming aware of it helped me let music back into my daily life, allowing myself to sing and to dance when no one was around. It wasn't easy in the beginning, as singing used to stimulate my gag reflex; dancing, on the other hand, made my heart race and my breathing too shallow, which could easily trigger a panic attack. Emetophobia managed to take charge even of that part of me by forcing me to stay silent and still, like a statue, preventing me from living in the way I wanted to. I had to fight to regain the ability to enjoy music again. But once I managed, the effect it had on me, on my mood and my energy levels was immediate. It would help me ease the anxiety and stress and I’d often get out of my obsessive worrying over what I ate or whether I would get sick. I would often turn to singing specifically when I’d notice I was getting stuck in my obsessively worrisome thoughts and most of the time it would help me to break the cycle and get back to the present moment. My husband used to think it was silly, and used to tease me about it. He, like most people, felt embarrassed to let loose in such ways, but as soon as he saw the immediate and positive effects it had on me, he was the first one to encourage it further.
Music helped my voice to be heard again. Singing and dancing helped me to open up my diaphragm and I could feel my chest expanding and my breath flowing more freely and deeply than it had done in years. My posture changed, I held my head higher and my back did not slouch anymore as it used to. In those moments I would see a glimpse of my old confident self. Eventually, these activities were introduced even in my recovery plan as a way of challenging some aspects of my Emetophobia. Needless to say, it’s my favourite part of my treatment.
So who cares if we’re not perfect at singing, many professional singers aren’t and yet they do it because they have a passion for it, and people respond to it. I’m not perfect at making clay decorations or painting, and yet that’s my full time job and I’ll never give it up even tough I’m no Michelangelo or Da Vinci. I’m aware that my singing is galaxies away from good, let alone perfect, and yet I know it has an incredibly positive effect on me and I refuse to let go of it, as I know that no one can stop me from enjoying it in my own home but me. I’ve cut out too many things I loved in my life because of my condition but I’m on my way to conquering them back and music was the first things I chose to fight for as it was the one I missed the most.
If science has proved the benefits of music on anxiety and stress levels, and it’s being used in therapies around the world, why not use it on a daily basis, and replace our medications with a daily fix of singing and dancing? You might think it’s silly and that it wouldn’t work, but don’t dismiss it before you try it. And if you’re worrying what’s the right or wrong way of dancing or singing remember that there's no such thing, you just need to let go and have fun.