Music is powerful. It can get under your skin and completely change your mood. It also affects your unconscious sense of safety, which directly impacts your ability to engage openly and creatively with other people. Create and play your own personal ‘ventral vagal playlist’ to help you feel calm, connected, exited, playful and joyful. Read on to find out more.
Way back in the 80s, when I was young and innocent, I used to listen to music.
I’m pretty sure I got a lot of the words wrong and I don’t think I always understood the meaning, but I connected with some of it. The rhythm had an impact. I listened again and again to certain songs, particularly sad ones, which tells a story in itself.
My connection was always emotional and as I grew and controlled my emotions more and more, music pretty much left my life. Working in the Midlands, I clocked up a lot of miles in my car. Instead of putting on my favourite tapes or CDs (the concept of an MP3 player or smart phone was not even a nugget in Steve Jobs’ brain then), I’d tune in to the news or the nearest equivalent I could find. I’d arrive well informed and steady. But rarely invigorated, energetic or excited.
Things changed when I started to train as a psychotherapist, particularly when the going got tough. The training is challenging. I had to connect with parts of me I had long since split off and engage with the feelings those parts held. It meant connecting with rage, sadness, grief and all the other big and powerful core emotions. I started to listen to music when I was driving. And again, I listened to a small number of songs over and over again. On the motorway, where no one could hear, I sang along as loudly as I could. Different songs served different purposes. Some really released the rage while with others I was crying in seconds, and it was never the ones I expected.
I’m a very contained person, someone who detaches and rationalises the challenges I face. It’s a ‘way of being’ I value but it’s not great if I feel really dysregulated. If I feel there is something wrong or I’m unsettled in some way, it doesn’t help me process it. It also means I’m far more likely to find a way to cope with something than say it’s not okay for me, which is ultimately destructive. With music I can change this. Get Siri to play a particular song, picked for a reason I might not be able to explain, and I’ll connect with my underlying emotion. Then I can start to explore what’s going on for me and work through it.
I wouldn’t call myself a music fan – my lack of knowledge of the latest artists is a standing joke in my family. But since training as a psychotherapist I have essentially created a playlist for my autonomic nervous system (ANS).
According to Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theory we continually gather information from our environment via an unconscious process called neuroception. Our neural circuits interpret the information and make an assessment of our safety: I’m safe, I’m in danger or I’m about to die.
If the assessment is ‘I’m in danger’ the sympathetic nervous system (part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS)) kicks into action. Pupils dilate, salivation stops, airways relax, the heart races, adrenalin is released. We’re ready for fight or flight. Cortisol gets released next, providing extra energy to meet the threat. We are in the sympathetic autonomic state.
If the assessment is ‘I’m about to die’ the parasympathetic branch of the ANS is triggered. The heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, airways constrict, the bladder empties. Pain reliving chemicals are released. This process eases the moment of death, the body shutting down reduces awareness. It also increases the chances of survival, predators often leaving prey that ‘plays dead’. This is called the dorsal vagal autonomic state.
When the brain assesses the environment as safe, balance returns. It’s possible to think clearly, talk and engage with others. We are in the ventral vagal autonomic state.
As Deb Dana explains in The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, music can signal safety or danger, triggering or shifting our autonomic state. In therapy we can use it as a safe way to explore the sympathetic and dorsal vagal states. In day-to-day life we can use it to engage with our ventral vagal state, the state in which we can be expansive, creative, connected to others.
Experiment to find the music that takes you to this state. It might not be what you expect, and it could be a real mixture of style, rhythm and pace. Once you’ve got your ‘ventral vagal playlist’ prepared, put it on the next time you head off to see friends or attend a meeting and notice the difference it can make.