Surprising Anxiety Trigger 6: Music

This is the sixth installment of the ongoing series of surprising triggers of childhood anxiety.

We all know that music can dramatically influence mood, but it’s easy to forget that songs have different effects on different people. Songs are often strongly associated with specific memories: Though I believe the song came out years earlier, “We’re Going to Be Friends” by The White Stripes conjures my senior year in high school so dramatically I get almost giddy when I hear it; 12th grade was one of the best years of my life. Alternately, I can’t listen to Sum41’s first album (and luckily wouldn’t care to anyway) because it brings me back to the anxiety and despair of eighth grade. Children have fewer things to remember, but they may also associate songs with memories. A favorite family lullaby heard while away from parents might trigger separation anxiety, or a song from a scary movie (and remember, children are often scared by seemingly benign movies) might cause sudden unease. These associative memories are too complex for most young children to express, so it’s up to parents, caregivers, and teachers to help anxious children explore their fears.

Even if you’ve never heard a song before or don’t have any strong associations to it, some music just makes you feel bad. Sometimes a piece of a lyric can be scary, or sometimes there’s a scary story being told. I mentioned before that “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” was agonizing for me in preschool because I took the lyrics to mean that the singer’s mother was coming but hadn’t yet arrived–and she never even gets there! Also, don’t underestimate the effects of a “plaintive melody” or a dramatic swell. For most people, the melody of the song is actually more powerful than the lyrics. (Yesterday, my roommate pointed out the story being told in “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” It’s not as whimsical as you might guess.)

If your child or student becomes distressed during a song, it may be helpful to ask the child whether she’s heard the song before, and where. Next, explain that songs can make you remember something really strongly or even just make you feel a strong emotion. Education, understanding, and training are the best tools to mitigate anxiety, so always use anxiety attacks as “teaching moments.” Then, after the anxiety has been addressed, use distraction to help your child feel normal again. And consider changing the song!

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