Stressed? What Music Do You Listen To When You Need To Chill Out?

“What do you want me to do?!” screamed a man on the train this morning, directly over me. I think he’d had kippers for breakfast. “They’re pushing me! I can’t move anywhere!” The London overground is unusually packed at the moment to deal with surplus passengers unable to use the Underground because of the tube strike. Three people fainted and a fight kicked off before the train had time to ground to a halt for a long while. Late for work, squeezed torso-to-torso, sweaty and stressed, with rising heart and breathing rates, we’d entered the stress zone. I reached for a calming song to listen to.

What music do you pick when you need to chill out? Typically, music deemed relaxing is usually low tempo (around 80 BPM), gentle, muted and mellow. Brian Eno’s ‘Music For Airports’ might spring to mind, Enya, or Morcheeba. A quick poll on Twitter produced predictably pacific suggestions. Radiohead’s ‘Nude’ and ‘Reckoner’ instead of ‘Idioteque’, for example. Other suggestions included Nick Drake’s ‘Horn’, Mazzy Star’s ‘California’, Rilo Kiley’s ‘A Better Son/Daughter’, The National’s ‘Fake Empire’ and Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’.

It’s pretty cool that music can actually reduce stress. It can literally change your bio-chemistry by moderating heart rate, respiration and blood pressure which helps maintain the homeostatic equilibrium and makes you feel chilled out. A fascinating study by Mona Chanda and Daniel Levitin (Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 2013) made lots of findings on the effects of music on stress and arousal. They played a meditative, non-rhythmic piece of music by Ravi Shankar to subjects in the study and found it significantly reduced plasma levels of the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine compared with the rhythmic pieces. When played techno, subjects experienced heightened levels of stress chemicals. Music has also been shown to reduce stress and anxiety in patients anticipating surgery or just afterwards.

Judging by the study, you’re safer to go for music without lyrics or a beat if you want to de-stress quickly. The scientists propose that the mechanism for the ability of music to regulate stress, arousal and emotions is that it “initiates reflexive brainstem responses.” “Brainstem neurons tend to fire synchronously with tempo,” it goes on to explain, and vice versa.

But one man’s Zero 7 is another’s Slipknot. The study also found that how your stress response system reacts to music will depend on “underlying personality dimensions.” Chanda and Levitin took background music as an example and found that it caused more cognitive interference with introverts than extroverts.

My go-to for stress relief is music that takes me completely out of the surrounding environment. So something comically upbeat and ridiculously funky (compared with the 0700 Greater Anglia train to London Liverpool Street) by Marvin Gaye, Steely Dan or Big Chief can diffuse the situation – and rising cortisol levels. Piano-based music by Liszt, Debussy or Philip Glass works, but I avoid sudden crescendos or unexpected orchestral parps. A loud, repetitive or bludgeoning track sometimes does the trick so Tim Hecker, Jon Hopkins, or something gritty and shouty from El-P are all in my chill arsenal. Just keep this the hell away.

What do you play when you feeling really frustrated and stressed and angry? Let us know what and why with #stressreliefsongs or in the comments below.