"I hate feeling anxious. Every time I feel this way, I want to run,” my client said. As a psychologist who helps millennials struggling with mood disorders brought on by stressors, like financial woes, career dissatisfaction, and loneliness, I understood her dilemma, but I also knew that ignoring the problem could heighten her worries.
Even though anxiety disorders are common and not typically difficult to treat, finding the right tools to help this client was tricky. Meditation irritated her and journaling felt overwhelming. “Writing my feelings down makes everything worse,” she explained. Like many people wrestling with anxiety, her intrusive, worrisome thoughts made everyday activities like socializing and going to work seem nearly impossible.
"Instead of seeing fear as the enemy, try thinking of it as a misunderstood friend,” I suggested.
The tension in her face softened. "Hmm, interesting. I've never thought of it that way. That’s something to reflect on.”
Those words of wisdom weren’t my own, and I told her as much. In fact, they didn’t even come from an iconic psychologist, like Sigmund Freud or Abraham Maslow. I had plucked the line, “Fear is a friend who’s misunderstood,” from one of my favorite John Mayer songs, "The Heart of Life," from his 2006 Continuum album.
While many therapists rely on psychological theories to help people understand and solve their problems. I’ve referenced artists, like Mayer, to help shift my clients’ perspective. It might seem cheesy to use a singer’s words as a form of therapy, but this approach is actually grounded in science. Referred to as expressive arts therapy, this technique uses creative processes, like writing, poetry, or music to help people tap into their emotions and invoke personal change.
Expressive arts therapists believe that music can help clients access emotions that can’t be expressed through traditional talk therapy. And song lyrics, in particular, can help people realize that they’re not alone—that others have faced similar feelings of anxiety, grief, and sadness. Studies suggest that this form of therapy can help people recover from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
As a music lover, I’ve always used song lyrics as my own form of therapy. In the 90s, during my tumultuous teen years, “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. reassured me that angst was universal. In college, when I went through my first painful break-up, the line “You must always know how long to stay and when to go,” from folk singer Patty Griffin’s song, “Let Him Fly,” reminded me that it was okay to walk away. Mayer’s debut album Room for Squares came out during my first year of graduate school. Instead of being drawn to the pop hits, like “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” and “No Such Thing,” I gravitated towards “Great Indoors,” a song that accurately described my struggles with shyness: “Scared of a world outside you should go explore. Pull all the shades and wander the great indoors.”
For me, lyrics have always been like mantras—snippets of wisdom that summarize our emotional experiences and prompt self-reflection. And whenever I’m going through a difficult time, locating my story in someone else’s words helps shine hope on my pain.
Before I became a psychologist, I thought my love affair with song lyrics was a merely a hobby, similar to journaling. I didn’t realize that therapists could use lyrics as a way to help clients heal.
It wasn’t until I had a clinical supervisor who was also an artist that I learned how to incorporate creative tools, like song lyrics and writing, into my sessions. “You’re a creative person and you should bring that part of yourself into your work. It will help your clients connect with you,” my supervisor told me.
Using lyrics as a therapeutic technique means more than relating to the words of a song. It requires us to listen carefully to a client’s narrative so that we can find the right words to empathize with their pain. Songs don’t need to be the most played from your Spotify playlist, or even be familiar to clients to feel meaningful. In this case, the words are more important than the music.
Friends and family know that I’m a huge John Mayer fan. In fact, whenever my daughter sees me scrolling through Instagram, she asks: “Are you watching John Mayer videos?” But even though I enjoy the singer’s music, I don’t mention his lyrics because I like his songs; I share them because of the insight they may help evoke.
By referring to Mayer’s lyrics with my anxious client, I hoped to convey that trying to understand one’s fears can offer more insight than running away from them. Of course, those words didn’t magically erase her doubts. They did, however, help her to see anxiety as a confusing companion, instead of a scary, untouchable problem.
“In the Blood,” from Mayer’s most recent album, The Search for Everything is, perhaps, one of his most introspective songs. Listen to it, and you might feel like you’re eavesdropping on one of the singer’s therapy sessions. In the opening lines, he asks: “How much of my mother has my mother left in me? How much of my love will be insane to some degree? And what about this feeling that I’m never good enough? Will it wash out in the water or is it always in the blood?” Touching upon the age-old nature vs. nurture question, this song highlights a question that almost every client asks: How much of who I am is a result of how I was raised?
Clients familiar with Mayer’s music have referred to “In the Blood” as they ponder this unanswerable question, asking things like: “Do I struggle with trust because of my parents’ divorce, or is it based somehow in my family’s biology?” and “Am I depressed because depression runs in my family, or is it because depression caused my dad to be emotionally unavailable for most of my childhood?”
Not every client who comes to therapy is keen to start exploring their pain. With more reserved clients, sharing a song lyric can be a way to help break the ice and begin to build trust.
During a session with a depressed young man who was battling feelings of self-doubt and hopelessness, I mentioned a line from Mayer’s song, “Who Says,” from his 2009 Battle Studies album: “Who says you can’t be free from all of the things that you used to be?” By sharing the lyric, I didn’t intend to undo his feelings of insecurity: I knew that wasn’t possible. I simply used the words as a way to pose a question, inviting him to tell me why he felt like his life couldn’t possibly be different.
According to researchers, expressive art therapies can help clients to see their counselors as more personable, instead of merely “blank slates,” which can build repertoire. And hearing one’s struggles reflected through someone else’s words can also lessen potential shame around personal shortcomings. Studies also show that inviting a client to interpret song lyrics can help uncover novel thoughts and feelings, which can lead to a therapeutic breakthrough.
While I don’t solely rely on song lyrics as a way to help my clients heal, many of them have benefitted from the way I’ve incorporated lyrics, like Mayer’s, in our sessions. Lines like: “Make Friends with what you are,” from the song, “The Age of Worry,” and “It’s hard to fake what you won’t be,” from the song “Born and Raised” are meditations in self-acceptance. It’s words like these that can help quiet judgmental thoughts, like “I’ll never be good enough to land my dream job,” or “Sharing my problems with my friends only burdens them, I’ll pretend that I’m happy.” And once this negative self-talk begins to dissipate; defenses soften, helping clients to see themselves and their problems in a “New Light.”