S1:E18 – The Power Of Music To Soothe Our Anxiety


In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore the intersection of leadership and spirituality. People are expressing more than ever a desire to find meaning in their work lives. What does it mean to be spiritual, and how does it show up behaviorally? How can we grow our spirituality?




Don’t forget to check out my You Tube channel with new videos every Wednesday on emotional intelligence, resilience, and leadership.

Check out Irvine’s new book Leadership Lessons From The Pub.

Check out Bridgette’s book which she co-authored with Bod Duggan  Resilient Leadership 2.0.

And as always, don’t forget about all the mind-blowing free resources some of which are mentioned in each episode. 


Irvine: Hello, everyone, and welcome to Resilient Leadership Podcast, where everything we talk about is aimed at helping you lead with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and conviction, even in anxious times. My name is Irvine Nugent and, as always, I am lucky to have my co-host and collaborator with me, Bridgette Theuer. How has life been treating you, Bridgette?

Bridgette: Well, thank you for asking, Irvine, it has been treating me well. And I must say that preparing for this, particular, episode has just been a joy. I am so excited to share with listeners this topic. So, what’s on tap for today, Irvine?

Irvine: Well, what’s on tap today is the power of music to soothe our anxiety. And I’m, really, excited about it as well. It brings me back, last year, maybe about nine months ago, there was news that came out, that, for me, was just, talk about joy in my face. And it was that for the first time in 40 years, one of the most seminal music groups that were part of growing up, ABBA, were coming back to record a new album. No one saw it coming. It was, kind of, out of nowhere.

They released two songs from that album, and I remember listening to the first song and all of a sudden, tears were just coming down my face and it wasn’t a sad song at all. And it was such a deeply emotional experience, and I’m thinking, oh my God, what is it? There’s so much going on here, what’s happening? And I think it brought me to a place of deep memory of growing up in the north of Ireland. And, for me, ABBA, represented optimism, it represented a world that I wanted to live in, it represented hope, and it just all came back, all those longings, almost; and their music, and, especially, even now, a new song just transported me and moved me emotionally.

And I think that’s so interesting. And I think that’s not just me, many people report that, and so, I think today’s episode, we want to explore, why is it, what’s going on? Why does music have this power over us to evoke such strong emotion? And can we harness that? Can we harness that power to, perhaps, help us in moments of anxiety? So, let me ask you, Bridgette, what about music and you? Does music grab you as well and can you think of experiences where music’s just had this hold over you?

Bridgette: Well, it’s interesting because most of the music that has had a real hold over me was introduced to me through other people. And so, I remember one of those very first experiences was with my oldest brother, he’s almost 10 years older than me. We spent a lot of time together because he worked at a recreation center in the summers, and I would go to the rec center, and we would drive home together. And what he would play was James Taylor.

Irvine: Oh.

Bridgette: And the album Sweet Baby James, and so we would listen to it. So, whenever I hear that, and I love James Taylor to this day, but it brings back all those memories, you know?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Of being with him. And then, I got introduced from that to Carole King’s seminal iconic album, Tapestry. Love, love, love, love that. And then, later in life, really, R&B music started to capture my attention like Marvin Gaye and Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and Stevie Wonder and some of those others. Man, that music just, really, gets me moving, you know?

Irvine: Yeah. I love it.

Bridgette: It gets feeling a sense of life moving through me. Yeah.

Irvine: Yeah. I love that.

Bridgette: Yeah. So, Irvine, we both feel strongly about this, but I know you’re always looking for the connections between the topic and what neuroscience is telling us, right? And I think there’s a lot of connection here between music and the brain, right?

Irvine: Oh, you better believe it. And there’s been a lot of research in this area as well. And with the possibility now of brain imaging, we’re able to, really, look at the brain on music. What’s happening when people listen to music, and there’s been a lot of research on that? And what’s very clear is that music triggers the release of dopamine. And if you’ve heard about dopamine before. Yeah, I’ve heard of that, what’s that all about? Well, dopamine’s all about pleasure.

When we are feeling pleasure, dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter, is secreted all over the brain, in the body in fact, and what’s interesting is it’s very similar to the response when we have sex or drugs or gambling or chocolate, all of that. We know the [whole boom – 5:18] of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Well, what it was; was dopamine pleasure. And so, happiness begins there, and we are, literally, filled with bliss when we listen to our favorite music. And what’s more, there are other physiological reactions that we’re able to measure as well.

When we listen to some of our favorite music we’re aroused, our pupils begin to dilate, which is a sign of pleasure, attraction. Our pulse, which is often associated with bodily movement, becomes strangely active and blood is even redirected to other muscles in our body. And you ever find yourself when you’re listening to music; all of a sudden that foot starts tapping?

Bridgette: Yes.

Irvine: That’s, probably, the reason for that. That blood builds up in our muscles, and so we begin to tap to the music. So, what’s clear is that music impacts us at the deepest biological level; it has roots biologically for us. And what’s more is that even when we anticipate listening to music, so when we’re thinking about, oh, when I get home, I’m going to listen to my favorite music. All of a sudden that, as well, begins to create the same effects with us, which is, really, interesting.

So, that’s the physical, but I also know there’s also emotional impacts. So, maybe, Bridgette, do you want to speak to that, about the power of music to move us emotionally?

Bridgette: Yeah, and indeed it does. And there’s a reason for that, because, again, looking at the brain on music, what other areas of the brain light up; the amygdala, which is the seat of emotions. And the hippocampus, which is the seat of memories.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: So, of course, music, right? Provokes both memory and emotions, and then, we have this powerful association happening.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Where if our mother sang to us as a baby or as a young child, we might associate that. And then, how many of us have a song that we associate with a breakup, right? A, particularly, painful breakup, there’s a song for that, you know?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And then, when we listen to music, let’s say I’m listening to a melancholy piece of music. I can tell its melancholy, but I don’t just sense the melancholy, I begin to experience the melancholy because of those mirror neurons that we’ve talked about so much, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: So, the songs melancholy sadness begins to be mirrored in me. And so, oh, for sure, music has such power to evoke emotion and memory.

Irvine: What’s interesting about that, Bridgette? About four weeks ago, I was up in Northwest Pennsylvania, a friend of ours invited us up. She has a little cabin on the lake. And two other friends went with us. And so, we’re sitting around the campfire, a little fire, the fire outside the house. And I was the DJ for the evening. And so, I was playing some music, and what was so interesting about that, we played seventies and eighties and it was like, oh, I played an Elton John. Oh, I remember when I first heard that. And so, people were connecting whatever the piece of music was, when they first heard it or a, particular, memory or a, particular, event. And this is music 30, 40 years ago.

Bridgette: Interesting.

Irvine: It’s incredible, that power. And the other thing is, and research is showing us, as well, that the association and memory lasts so much longer and at its deepest held memories we have. And this, for me, was very apparent when we were living with her mother, who had Alzheimer’s at the time, she had lived with Alzheimer’s for seven years and it’s such a debilitating disease. And it’s so difficult to live with, especially, the relatives, et cetera, my sisters, but one of the things that my sisters would do is they would bring her out to the pub on a Friday evening and there would be a band who would play some old tunes.

And, at one stage, my mother was non-communicative and, really, didn’t communicate. But boy, when a song came on from the sixties or the fifties, and she would light up and she would start clapping and she would, actually, sing-along with some of the words.

Bridgette: Wow.

Irvine: And it was like, wow, how deeply imprinted is that memory that it can be touched upon and evoked, even in the midst of a disease, which destroys a lot of her memories.

Bridgette: All memory. Yeah.

Irvine: Yeah. And that she’s able to access that memory, such is the power of music.

Bridgette: That is so beautiful. And it reminds me of my father-in-law, who is living with Alzheimer’s, he’s had it for 9, 10 years. And now all of his memories are gone, even his childhood memories; he used to have sharp memories of early childhood, and now he doesn’t remember any of that. However, when a song comes on, he will start dancing and he gets silly, and his body starts moving and there’s an aliveness about him that you can see that’s more palpable. So, isn’t it interesting that music breaks through even what they call the plaques of Alzheimer’s?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Right?

Irvine: Yeah. So, I get curious about this, then why does it? And why is it? It’s no other species that has this connection with music, no other animal does that. So, evolutionary, it must have been important for us, it must have some importance to our survival that it’s imprinted at such a deep level of our brain functioning. And I’m wondering if part of it has to do with the fact that music helps create connection and helps create community. And I think one of the things was that I saw that in action during COVID when we were in lockdown. What are your thoughts about that, Bridgette?

Bridgette: Oh, I agree. Think about it. We listen to music in community, we go to nightclubs and bars and concerts, and we dance, we want to experience music together. I think one of the most heartwarming things that I observed, and I think all of us during the lockdown, were these spontaneous and organic displays of people singing. And it started with the Italians singing on their balconies to one another, right? And then, it just picked up and other examples of that took shape, and you just saw these musicians connecting with each other all over the world.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And there was a loneliness, of course, right, in the lockdown? We wanted to connect and music was a way to do that for many, many people.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: So, I think that’s its power. And as you posited at the beginning of this episode; music can help us manage anxiety, right? It can promote connection and it can help us soothe our anxiety. So, Irvine, set the stage for us on that, what’s that connection there?

Irvine: Yeah, well, it’s interesting. Let’s just connect some of the dots we’ve already talked about, which are pretty obvious, about how it might impact anxiety. So, first of all, we’ve said, music triggers pleasure. So, we know that when we’re stressed, when we’re anxious, cortisol is released into the body, it’s the stress hormone. And there’s been a lot of research on the impact of music and stress, and so music can help in two ways.

Number one, we’ve already talked about that Dopamine; get a little hit of dopamine, that pleasure. And then, it also has been shown to decrease the level of cortisol. So, just on a biological level, we know that music is helping us, first of all, promote pleasure and decrease the stress hormones. So, when we’re anxious, and I think some of us, at least I do, have a go-to tune when I’m highly anxious. And it’s one that, probably, no one knows it’s, actually, a chant, which is comes from some words written in the Middle Ages, which are called All Will Be Well.

And it’s a very simple tune, but the music is so soothing. And then, the lyric is very simple, just all will be well, all will be well, all manner of things will be well. And when I’m feeling very anxious about something, uptight about something, I put that on and it transports me and my breathing changes and it just, really, helps me, and I can feel some of that anxiety after about five or six minutes coming down.

Bridgette: Well, I’m going to listen to that. I have not heard of that chant.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And just you describing it is soothing.

Irvine: Yeah. How about yourself? When you’re highly anxious, Bridgette, and you turn to music, what’s in one of your playlists?

Bridgette: Well, I have to admit something, which is that until we, really, started talking about this as a topic for our podcast. I must say, I don’t know that I did use music purposefully in that way. And so, I decided I would, and I haven’t for a long time, I would listen to that Carole King album that I mentioned earlier, Tapestry.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And I noticed that the songs there, which she wrote all of those songs, and that album was a best seller for decades. Each song evoked a certain mood for me and a certain memory and a certain emotion. And I thought to myself, I have to do this more often. I need to be more intentional. It would happen by accident that I would hear a song and my spirits would be lifted, but I don’t think that this was a practice for me, and now it’s going to become a practice.

Irvine: Yeah. Yeah. And I think the other thing as well, we’ve talked a little bit, bleeding on from that is that music, as well, impacts our nervous system and it can bring it down a beat, sometimes when we’re highly nervous and we’re anxious and our heart begins to beat a little bit quicker and our breathing, et cetera. Listening to a certain tempo of music, which what I just described there with that chant, actually, begins, whenever we begin to almost breathe to the tempo, we can, actually, begin to change, kind of, our breathing pattern.

And we know from other episodes that our breathing has the power to move our nervous system from a triggered nervous system of fight or flight, and to bring that and to change that and to change our actual nervous functioning. So, music can, really, do that in a wonderful way.

Bridgette: I love that.

Irvine: Yeah. And then, the other thing as well, is that you mentioned music impacts us emotionally, and I think there are so many ways that music can help us when we’re feeling anxious, because anxiety is emotional reaction as well, there are so many emotions packed into anxiety. So, first of all, I think music can help us tap into a certain emotion. So, sometimes we’re carrying around, we’re anxious about something and at times, well, I don’t know what I’m anxious about or what is it that I’m carrying around, and all of a sudden, a tune can release an emotion.

There’s one client in, particular, who I remember a few years ago, who freely admitted that he was not very good at accessing emotions and yet realized that he was carrying a lot and, especially, had not, really, grieved the death of a sister that had died very suddenly, and was just feeling anxiety. And all of a sudden, he was driving one day, and a tune came on, on the radio. And all of a sudden, he said, I just started crying. I don’t know why it happened, it just tapped into something and there was a flood, there was a release. So, I think music has the power to help us release emotion and music has the power as well to help us move emotions in a certain direction. So, sometimes, we’ve talked a lot today about music helping us, kind of, calm down.

Bridgette: Yes.

Irvine: But sometimes we need to have music to, kind of.

Bridgette: Amped up.

Irvine: Amped up. Sometimes anxiety can make us feel almost depressed a little bit and, kind of, in a low energy. And so, sometimes getting out of the anxiety involves, really, helping us to amp that up, and so to put on some music that just gets our feet tapping, that can inspire us, can move us as well; that can truly help us modify these emotions that we’re in.

Bridgette: That reminds me, Irvine, that all my kids played soccer and I’m remembering that my youngest daughter, before games, would always put headphones on and she had a playlist, and the songs were always about amping her up. Getting her into that state of readiness. Yeah. And so, she was using music very intentionally then.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Yeah, I just remembered that.

Irvine: So, can you think of any other ways, perhaps, Bridgette, that music might help us as we deal with anxiety?

Bridgette: I think one of the most powerful things, for me, is that music grounds us in the present. It captures all of our attention, and we start to move to the music or emote to the music and we’re so, so very present. The other day, I heard an interview on NPR about the lyricist who helped write the words to Earth, Wind and Fire’s September. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that song, September.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Oh, it’s a great song.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And so, that piqued my curiosity, and so I listened to it and I was just swept away. I just was like, oh my gosh, I forgot about what a great song this is, but I was so deeply in the moment. Yeah. It was great. And then, I think similarly, that music can, really, distract us in the best sense of the word, right? From stressors, because, as you pointed out, music, really, engages so much of our brain. It just, really, requires a lot of brain activity. And, therefore, those internal threats or stressors, kind of, fade into the background, and I love that about music, you know?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: I think that’s so cool. Alright. So, clearly this is a powerful aspect of our lives that we can be more intentional about using. So, Irvine, what are some strategies, practical tips or thoughts about how to use music intentionally to lower anxiety?

Irvine: Yeah, so it’s a great question. I think, first of all, is create a playlist, begin to explore music and its power. I think it’s happening, and, at times, we don’t fully realize it’s there, so let’s harness some of that power. And I think part of it begins in awareness, in, kind of, what mood am I in? What is my current emotional state? Am I anxious? Am I feeling restless? Am I bored? Am I sad? And how would I like to feel instead? And with that goal in mind, what we want to do is gently bring ourselves.

So, I think what we want to do is to, really, first of all, find some music, perhaps, that taps into how we’re feeling, and then, gently amp it up a little bit or change it, because we can use music just to, kind of, bring us on a journey. And here are some things in that process to keep in mind, first of all, let’s use familiar music. We have a whole stack of music that is familiar to us that we identify with. You just talked about that album, and you went through it again and every single song made you feel it a different way.

So to, really, use that familiar power, I know, for me, choral music, a chant, has a real impact in me, and so I like to use that as well. And so, use music that, really, speaks to you. If you want to tap into some of your sadness, what songs bring that to mind? One of the powerful things is that music, actually, produces the same neurochemical response that’s released when we cry. And so, that’s the power of music, to, really, tap into that mood. And also, consider music without lyrics. Sometimes we can get into, oh, I have to find a song just with the right words, and sometimes that works, but other times just instrumental music can evoke a mood within us as well, and can help us, really, tie into that.

What about you, Bridgette, and any other thoughts about how we might use music, especially, to modulate our anxiety?

Bridgette: Well, I want to circle back to something you already said that I think is so important in that example you gave of the client who had a hard time identifying and acknowledging and naming and experiencing his moods and how music helped him to do that. So, I think that step number one can be finding music that matches our current mood. Because I think all of us are like, oh, I don’t want to feel this way, let me find another song. But sometimes what we, really, want and need is a piece of music that meets us where we are, whatever state we are in.

And then, from there, perhaps, we might be ready to find another piece of music that, as you said, gently lifts us into and ushers us into another state, another mood. And then, we can think about tempo of the song. Do we want to feel more uplifted, more engaged, more energized; we look at tempo, we look at volume, we look at the, kind of, instruments that are in the music. But I love this idea of meeting ourselves where we are first, and then, going from there, it’s just lovely. So, Irvine, what about the practice? So, what’s the core practice you want to leave folks with for this lovely episode on music and using it to manage our anxiety?

Irvine: Well, I think it’s going to be pretty obvious, but it is, you need to create your own playlist.

Bridgette: Yay.

Irvine: And we want you to have a little fun with this, depending on who is your music server of choice, be it Apple or Spotify or whatever, all of them have little playlists and you’ll notice some of them evoke a mood. One of my favorite playlists on Apple is Rainy Day, and then, there’s another one, which is Summer Barbecue, and it does it so well, it creates, kind of, the mood. But if you were to create and name a playlist for a playlist washing away my anxiety, let’s say your playlist is called Washing Away My Anxiety, what songs would you put in there?

And maybe a way to do that is, if you’ve never thought about this before, is write down 10 of your favorite songs, what comes to mind? And then, as you write them down, as you think about that song, what mood does it make me feel? Is there a memory connected with it? And if there’s a memory connected with, is it a happy memory? Is it a sad memory? Is it a memory that uplifts me? And just, kind of, begin to notice, and I think what’ll happen is it’s like anything, once we put more thought into it, almost like a new muscle in the brain, as we listen to music, begin to notice, oh, I’m noticing how this, particular, music is changing me or this, particular, music is helping me or moving me.

And so, from that create a playlist of four to five songs and maybe create a few playlists depending on your mood. So, maybe a playlist to be happy or maybe a playlist, just like your daughter and the soccer, something to motivate me. Here are four songs to motivate me. I’m a speaker, people know that, and so I have a, particular, playlist that I listen to that, really, energizes me, makes me feel good, and before I come out on the stage.

Bridgette: Love it.

Irvine: I’m amped up and ready to be there. So, then create a playlist of four to five songs, and I’d love to hear. So, maybe drop us an email, what are some of your favorite songs? What are some of the songs that you use that moves you emotionally? And maybe tell us about an emotion that goes or a memory that goes with that song, you can write to us at resilientleadershippodcast@gmail.com, but I think that’s a great practice for people to move into.

Bridgette: Oh, it is. And I’m going to do it. So, I have no playlists, so I am going to take that practice and I’m going to make it happen. This has just been such an interesting, and, for me, inspiring conversation, Irvine, thank you very much. We’ve, really, looked at how powerful music is to soothe, to connect us, to help manage our anxiety, to uplift us, and even just to help us acknowledge and access our own emotions whatever they may be. And that no other species seems to do this, right? Create music, and then, have it be such a potent influence in our lives. So, let’s all use it as it was meant to be used, right.

Irvine: Love it.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: Yes.

Bridgette: So, Irvine, what’s on tap for next time, you want to tee that up?

Irvine: Well, next time we are going to look into optimism and explore about optimism and, perhaps, pessimism as well and how that shows up in leadership.

Bridgette: Well, that’s going to be an interesting conversation, I, really, look forward to that. So, thank you, folks, for tuning in. We so appreciate you. We are looking forward to hearing from you and you all just take great care. Thank you, Irvine.

Irvine: Thanks, Bridgette. Take care, everyone.

Bridgette: Bye-Bye.

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