If you see me in the car not listening to music, you should check on me. Seriously. The same goes for when I’m in the shower, trying to fall asleep, cooking dinner ― you get the gist. I’m not the only one, either: Multiple Reddit users shared similar takes, saying background noise can be calming and that “silence is a monster,” for example.
This is all to say that if you always have something playing, I feel you. While there’s not necessarily something wrong with playing Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” 24/7 — honestly, who isn’t — there may be a deeper urge underneath our desire to have on background noise constantly.
“Background noise may be used in an attempt to distract from or avoid unpleasant emotions and thoughts,” said Jenna Carl, a clinical psychologist and the chief medical officer at Big Health, a digital therapeutic company that provides help for insomnia and anxiety.
Basically, it serves as a distraction. “Effectively, we fill our attentional capacity to the max with other stimuli in an attempt to have no resources left for the things we are trying to avoid,” explained Juulia Karlstedt, a counselor who specializes in anxiety and perfectionism.
And with the way this coping skill works, you have to do it continuously to feel OK, she continued. “The minute the distraction stops, the unpleasant emotions and thoughts normally spring up again in full force,” Karlstedt said.
At what point is background noise as a coping skill unhealthy?
To some degree, playing background noise is a perfectly fine way to manage your emotions. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or depressed at work, for example, you may not feel comfortable crying and may need something to distract you.
But here’s the catch: You don’t want to dodge your emotions completely or forever. “You want to find the time later on to return to your thoughts to evaluate them and feel the feelings they bring up,” Carl said.
Why? Unfortunately, avoidance can exacerbate your distress. “If you find yourself always distracting from or avoiding unpleasant thoughts, that can reinforce the anxiety that’s behind the thoughts,” Carl said. Basically, you aren’t able to work through the anxiety; you’re just pushing it under the rug again and again. While this is certainly understandable, it’s not the most helpful.
Ultimately, mindfulness is key here. “Distraction should be used with intention,” Carl said. “It’s good to contain ruminative thinking and worry, but you also want to acknowledge if there are negative underlying emotions and address them through healthy avenues.”
So ask yourself: Am I coping in other (effective) ways, too? This might look like talking to a therapist or friend, doing a type of exercise you enjoy, taking baby steps, journaling, avoiding caffeine or taking deep breaths. If you’re not, it may help to add a couple of those items to your daily life.
Karlstedt encouraged doing this without judgment or shame. “No coping strategy is inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” she said. “Even distraction can have a time and place when it is useful.”
Instead, focus more on the “workability” of the skill. “If a way of coping has started to get in the way of you being able to live the life you want, then it may have become maladaptive and ‘unworkable,’” she said.
How can you feel those tough emotions in a way that feels safe?
When emotions and anxieties are especially intense, it makes sense that we don’t want to think about them. You may not feel comfortable or safe; for example, what if it makes you want to self-harm?
However, as an old therapist of mine would say, you have to feel it to heal it. So these experts shared some therapy-specific tools that can help you handle your worries or sadness ― without adding too much extra stress to your plate.
This technique entails challenging your thoughts. “[This skill] allows you to identify a thought, understand how it makes you feel and behave, and understand if the thought is helpful or unhelpful,” Carl explained.
For example, if your social anxiety is keeping you from spending time with friends, it’s probably not super beneficial. For more help with this technique, check out Therapist Aid’s guide to cognitive restructuring.
This skill is all about diving into the fear. “If a lot of your thoughts are worries, allow yourself to imagine the worst-case scenario,” Carl said. “Through repetition with this technique, you can find that your anxiety decreases or goes down.”
Research has shown this, too: A 2013 study in the journal Behaviour Change found worry exposure — more specifically, directly imagining a feared event — reduced levels of generalized anxiety disorder in participants.
If this option makes you feel anxious, that’s OK. You can do it with a therapist or friend, have another coping skill lined up after, try it with less anxiety-inducing situations first, or choose a different tool altogether.
Mindfulness can help you to not judge yourself and make emotions more tolerable, according to Carl.
“It enables you to observe your thoughts without changing or reacting to them while focusing on your breath,” she said. “If a negative or unhelpful thought enters your mind, label it in a non-judgmental way and return to your breath. This can help you feel less reactive to your negative thoughts, and be able to tolerate rather than avoid them.”
You can also use this tool alongside background music if that’s easier. “If you notice a thought or emotion creeping in that is unpleasant, just name it to yourself,” Karlstedt suggested. (For example, “I’m noticing I feel anxious about the fight I had with my friend.”)
“Then, instead of getting caught up in the thought, bring your attention back to the music and whatever other task you are doing,” Karlstedt said. You can visualize the thoughts floating away from you as you focus on the current moment.
Other mindfulness activities include deep breathing, the 5-4-3-2-1 method (list five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste), knitting and coloring.
Playing background noise — whether it’s a song, podcast, quiet jazz, a TV show, whatever — is tempting, for sure. And don’t get us wrong: It can be helpful sometimes. But if you notice the urge comes from wanting to run from your emotions and thoughts, it may be time to introduce other coping skills, too.