I feel like we’ve known each other for a while now, so I think it’s about time that I shared something personal with you.
I may come across as a tough old Viking who doesn’t take any back-talk from the goats and can drink a lot of the young folk under the table, but like many other people I’ve struggled with anxiety and panic attacks for quite a few years. In fact, my last panic attack was in the middle of our Nordwest Bank branch, which was particularly embarrassing as a gruff raiding party had just come in to deposit their hard-earned spoils.
Now, I’m lucky because all my friends are very supportive – Igor often lets me use the pantry in the Mead Hall as a quiet space when it all gets a bit rowdy, on the understanding that I don’t eat all the sweet rolls while I’m in there.
But I’ve also found ways of easing the anxiety attacks myself involving music, visualisation and a little bit of nerdism, and I wanted to share those methods with you in case you can adapt them to help you too.
Firstly, I’ll admit that I don’t know a lot about psychology. I do know that music can change the way we feel, prompt our memories and stimulate our imagination, and that it has something to do with the hippocampus and the amygdala in the brain. However, I don’t think that there’s any need to delve deep into the scientific realms right now. Suffice it to say that I believe we humans are hard-wired to respond to music in all its forms, and that these responses are powerful and largely unconscious ones.
So without further ado, let’s plunge in.
Dealing with the onset of panic
A few years ago, I found myself walking through Londinium on my way to a business meeting. This wasn’t a pleasant experience because I am useless when it comes to crowded places, and in an attempt to stave off the rising anxiety I was listening to songs on my iPod to try to create a kind of musical barrier between me and my surroundings.
This was working up to a point, but then ‘I am The Doctor’ by Murray Gold started playing. I’m very familiar with this track as it was used quite extensively in series five of Doctor Who, but as I listened to the music I realised that I was taking on traits of The Doctor himself. I smiled and felt more confident, like I could conquer any situation and emerge triumphant, and the anxiety started to fade away. I could hear the tenth Doctor saying “Just walk about like you own the place, works for me!”
In essence, the piece of music created a Doctor persona for me to use, one that wouldn’t succumb to an anxiety-induced panic attack, although I did have to be a bit careful not to rave about bananas or yell ‘Geronimo!’ too often.
Now, this obviously works because I’m a huge Doctor Who nerd who knows the character inside out but, even after all this time, this method still helps to ease my anxiety whenever it raises its annoying little head.
If you would like to try this technique: Think of a character you see as strong and courageous, and try playing a piece of music that you associate with them. Headphones and earbuds work best as they reduce any outside influences, but once you’ve used this a few times you should just be able to hear the music in your head for it to work!
The calming effect
We all know that music has the power to get us fired up and moving, but it can also calm us down when we feel as if everything’s getting on top of us.
A couple of months back, I played a wonderful game called The Talos Principle. It’s a philosophical puzzle game with beautiful graphics and refreshingly simple controls – there’s no inventory and no menus, just buttons for ‘use’, ‘jump’, ‘sprint’, ‘reset’ and ‘journal’. That’s it. The game places you, as an android, in a picturesque world where you are alone, save for a voice in the sky who identifies himself as Elohim, a library program called Milton who challenges you to think about how you classify yourself as a person, and the odd message left here and there by your ancestors. It’s incredibly peaceful, and the journey of finding out where you are, why you’re here and what has happened to the human race is thought-provoking and actually pretty bloody mind-blowing at the end.
But it’s the music that pulls all this tranquility together. Damjan Mravunac, who wrote the score, worked with the developer Croteam to create a soundtrack that has little or no percussion so as not to be a distraction while you’re attempting to solve the puzzles, and the result is an achingly beautiful collection of tracks that are calming and serene with an ever-so-slight touch of melancholy here and there to emphasise your situation.
Now, because my anxiety is often of the social kind, this music works to calm me down because it triggers my memory to recall the picturesque and peaceful realms of the Talos world, where I am alone and safe. Well, so long as I don’t go poking a bomb droid, of course.
If you would like to try this technique: It will help to find a calming piece of music that you also associate with peaceful imagery. If you can’t think of one, try taking a beautiful song to a place where you feel safe and happy, and listen to it there while taking in what’s going on around you. You’ll soon find that the music will recall the imagery you’ve associated it with.
Stimulating your imagination
What’s not to love about a bit of escapism! Our imaginations have the power to take us away from everything that’s making us anxious, even if only temporarily.
I recently got my little Viking paws on ‘Y Mabinogi – The First Branch’ by Damh the Bard.
Now, the Mabinogi is a collection of ancient Welsh folk takes, first written down in their entirety around the 14th century in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, but it’s likely that the stories were told in the oral tradition by bards for centuries before that.
And, following in their ancestral footsteps, Damh the Bard performs a modern-day re-telling of the first branch of these ancient tales through both story and song.
Immersion is the key to this one. I set aside two hours where I could listen to the entire album uninterrupted, turned down the lights and got comfortable. I even lit a pine-scented candle so it would feel like I was in a forest! Then I spent a few minutes with my eyes closed, imagining that I was around an evening campfire in the Welsh countryside as a wandering bard approaches, before pressing play.
Listening to the gentle-voiced narrative and the beautiful songs, I was transported. I was no longer thinking about my modern worries; instead I was watching the story unfold in my mind’s eye. I was in awe at the image of Arawn, the Grey Man; I cried over Hafgan; I felt joy at Rhiannon being absolved. For two hours, I wasn’t just listening, I was a part of that story.
Since then, I’ve listened – no, that’s not the right word – I’ve experienced this album twice, and now whenever I hear one of the songs, I’m transported back to that magical, Medieval time.
If you would like to try this technique: While audio books can have the same effect, I would really recommend getting ‘Y Mabinogi – The First Branch’ for your collection, purely because it mixes beautiful music and narrative for an altogether unique, and meditative, journey. Damh’s love of the stories comes through as he becomes Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Rhiannon, and the name Pryderi means ‘caring for’, and later ‘worries or anxiety’. And if there isn’t a message there, then you can willingly have all the sweet rolls in the pantry.
All the albums mentioned here are available on iTunes:
Doctor Who: Series 5 (Soundtrack from the TV Series), by Murray Gold
The Talos Principle (Video Game Soundtrack), by Damjan Mravunac
Y Mabinogi – The First Branch, by Damh the Bard (also available at paganmusic.co.uk)