HIGH NOTES: Can Music Calm Your Nerves Before Surgery?

I was a week away from getting LASIK to correct my near-sightedness when I caught wind of a recent study on the use of calming music before medical procedures. The University of Pennsylvania researchers found that soothing music was just as effective as sedative medication to reduce patients’ anxiety.

They studied 157 people about to receive a peripheral nerve block, a procedure done to block pain sensations during surgery. Some of them followed the usual protocol and took midazolam (also known as Versed), which makes you sleepy and relaxed but can also cause side effects like impaired cognition, paranoia, and even suicidal thoughts. Others listened to Marconi Union’s “Weightless,” a song created with the help of music therapists to promote relaxation. The researchers asked patients about their anxiety levels before and after the medication or song and asked them more questions afterward about their experience with the procedure.

While those who took the midazolam were more satisfied with the procedure overall and reported better communication with the medical staff, both groups reported an equal amount of stress reduction.

Intrigued by these findings, I decided to give “Weightless” a listen before my own surgery. The eight-minute track makes you feel like you’re surrounded by gongs harmonizing to create a sound-healing bath. The music is slow and mystical, with chimes and what sounds like a xylophone creating a melody. I listened to it the night before the LASIK and as I was sitting in the waiting room.

This was not exactly a formal experiment, to say the least; aside from the fact that I’m a sample size of one, I also took an Ativan that my ophthalmologist had prescribed, so I can’t compare conditions. That said, I didn’t particularly notice any change in my mood after either the music or the drug, except that the Ativan made me feel a bit drowsy and out of it. I will say, though, that I got through the procedure with only one significant freakout, which is pretty good for me because I’m a huge baby, especially when it comes to things touching my eyes.

At the very least, it probably didn’t hurt. “There have been studies that have been done for decades using music medicine, and it has shown to reduce anxiety before surgery, minimize the use of sedative medications, reduce fluctuations in vital signs, and keep patients calm in the recovery period,” the study’s lead author Veena Graff tells me.

Indeed, a meta-analysis published last year based on studies of over 7,000 patients found that people reported lower anxiety and less pain associated with surgery after listening to relaxing music. The music had the greatest impact on anxiety when people listened to it pre-operation and affected pain the most if they listened to it afterward. Certain music, like that involving string instruments, was even more effective.

Music doesn’t just affect the people receiving surgery — it could actually make doctors better at their jobs. One 2015 study found that surgeons who listened to their music of choice while operating on pigs’ feet produced higher-quality results that required less repair time.

Given that this song takes up only eight minutes of your time (which you could spend doing something else simultaneously, so it’s really taking up no time), there’s no reason not to give it a listen before you undergo a medical procedure or another stressful event. Maybe one day, the hospitals of the future will have songs like it playing in the operating room for both the patient’s and the physician’s benefit.

ONLY NOISE: Seven Songs That Help Me Navigate Depression and Anxiety

Soccer Mommy’s “Your Dog” reminds the author that everyone deserves respect, even on their darkest days. Photo by Daniel Topete

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Lauren Rearick compiles a playlist of songs she’s leaned on to cope with mental illness.

Nearly eight years ago, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I had long suspected that my lifetime of continual worries and lingering sadness had been something more, and although receiving confirmation made me feel validated, it also made me feel afraid and alone.

The stigma surrounding mental illness continues to lessen, but there are still times when it can seem as if you’re the only one in the world going through it. It’s hard to explain to others why you constantly worry, or fear something as simple as driving to a new destination, when you don’t even understand the reasoning behind your own emotions. Additionally, it feels like mental illness is some secret that, once shared, will forever impact your relationships – it becomes this hidden extension of you.

I continue to work towards getting better, and while I have found methods of treatment that work for me, I’ve also found coping mechanisms. Along with watching endless amounts of uplifting cartoons (Sailor Moon and Adventure Time are my go-tos) I’ve turned to music, and those feelings and fears that I once thought were unique to me have revealed themselves through others’ songs. From my fear of being alone to a promise that even the most broken pieces will eventually fit together into something beautiful, here are the seven songs that helped me navigate relationships and life while contending with depression and anxiety.

“Your Dog” – Soccer Mommy

I used to believe that having a mental illness made me unable to have normal relationships. As it turns out, I was waiting for someone who practiced understanding. “Your Dog,” from Soccer Mommy’s 2018 LP Clean, is a note to demand your worth, and to accept nothing less than kindness from others. There’s a furious beauty to the song, a message of empowerment that seems so soft when presented, but is made to land with an impression. In particular, the line, “I don’t wanna be your fucking dog/That you drag around/A collar on my neck tied to a pole/Leave me in the freezing cold,” struck an immediate chord with me, reminding me that one should never be forgotten, even on their darkest days.

“#23” – IAN SWEET

The entirety of IAN SWEET’s Shapeshifter album is an ode to anxiety, with the release detailing vocalist Jillian Medford’s struggles with mental illness. While I’ve found myself connecting with the whole album, “#23” openly talks of isolation, and as it continues, Medford expresses a desire to change, but an inability to make it happen. I have so often been there; wishing I could make my emotions just disappear. When I’m feeling totally alone, I know I have others I could call upon, but sometimes just listening to this track is enough – it reminds me that someone else potentially feels the same.

“Everybody Does” – Julien Baker

The intimacy of Julien Baker’s music has connected with numerous fans, including myself. In my initial experience with depression, I had a constant fear that I would be left alone. Even without depression, I think we all have a fear that we could potentially lose a friendship or a relationship, and on “Everybody Does,” — a single which appears on Baker’s 2015 debut album — the singer appeals to that worry. The song isn’t meant to encourage; rather, it reminded me that I’m not the only one fearful of being alone, and knowing that is comforting. In particular, the line: “I know myself better than anybody else / And you’re gonna run / You’re gonna run when you find out who I am” really resonates with me, but as Baker explained in an interview with Stereogum, she’s come to realize “it’s a fallacy to believe everyone will run when you tell them who you really are.”

“TV Dreams” – Katie Ellen

Even with continuing work, medication, and treatment, I still have bad days. And for those moments when I need a reminder that it’s okay not to be okay, I listen to “TV Dreams.” This track was one of the first songs released by Katie Ellen — the project of Anika Pyle and Dan Frelly, born from the ashes of their former band, Chumped — and later appeared on the band’s 2017 debut Cowgirl Blues. It incorporates both soft and harsh moments, with confessional proclamations to be there for someone, even if that someone has since moved on. “TV Dreams” reminds me that sometimes things won’t work out, and I may never understand my every feeling, but the ensuing confusion is something others experience, too.

“Let Down” – Radiohead

There’s no telling when I’ll have good or bad days, and when I’m at my lowest, “Let Down,” from Radiohead’s critically lauded Ok Computer, has provided a small glimmer of hope that things will change. This line: “Don’t get sentimental, it always ends up drivel/One day, I am gonna grow wings,” has etched itself into my memory and heart. There’s something truly comforting in feeling as if one day, I’ll have the ability to move on from where I am now.

“Reality TV” – Remember Sports

Hidden beneath the chaotic drumming and fast guitars of this single from 2015’s All Of Something is a message of just needing someone to rely on. The line “Take my mind off the empty space in this heart of mine / and I’ll take your mind off the empty space in your bed tonight,” has always resonated with me, helping me to realize I was relying on the wrong person to get me through a tough time. “Reality TV” is a musical reminder that no one has it all figured out – sometimes we’re just passing through.

“Bus Ticket” – Cayetana

The music of Cayetana has always been particularly therapeutic for me, and this proves especially true on “Bus Ticket,” a song that explores adjusting to a new medication and finding yourself again. This track, featured on the group’s sophomore release New Kind of Normal, has a quiet rage, and it instills in me a sense of pride, pushing me forward when I’m at my lowest. From reflections on strength inspired by others to the desire to finally get some serious “shit off my chest,” I think this is the track that finally reminded me that feelings things more than others or being afraid of something simple doesn’t make me any less of a person.

PLAYING DETROIT: Producer Nydge Confronts Anxiety With Electropop on Datsun Turbo

Detroit-based producer Nydge, born Nigel Van Hemmye, releases his first solo EP, Datsun Turbo, today. While Van Hemmye has spent the last year building an impressive catalog of pop anthems featuring other vocalists, this is his first foray as a solo artist. The EP is centered around Van Hemmye’s experience with severe anxiety and how it manifests itself in different aspects of his life. Although the subject matter is dense, his upbeat electric compositions could easily serve as the soundtrack to a VR race car simulation or modern-day Back to the Future remake.

Van Hymme says the opening track, “Immortal Youth,” is a nostalgic rumination on what life was like before he started having anxiety attacks. It opens with glockenspiel-like synths that recall the innocence of childhood. The lyrics follow suit, reflecting on happier times when debilitating worry didn’t exist. “Immortal youth / we have endless days / to find a happy place / it all comes in waves,” sings Van Hymme.

Datsun Turbo also touches on how anxiety can affect romantic relationships. Van Hymme says “Come Over” is about “the fear of never being able to commit or forgive myself due to my fatalistic inner narrative.” Arguably the EP’s catchiest track, the song tells the story of a yo-yo romance, where both characters keep coming back to a relationship that should be over– a theme that even people who don’t suffer from anxiety can relate to.

Van Hemmye’s also released a video along with the EP that attempts to explain his experience with anxiety further. In the short film, he details his first panic attack: “My heart was racing, and my walls of reality were melting.” The video goes on to give a chillingly accurate visual representation of what it’s like to have an anxiety or panic disorder, melding visions of clarity and beauty with unsettling disorientation. Van Hemmye explains that he started turning to long drives as a coping mechanism for his racing mind and heart. “I think driving has always soothed me because it occupies just enough of my anxious mind to not allow for excessive worrying.”

Van Hemmye says he feels a kinship to the Datsun, an economized version of an expensive European sports car. “That’s kind of how I see myself in music,” says Van Hemmye. “I’m a frugal kid from Detroit who makes accessible and honest music by crafting big pop music sounds in little DIY studios.”

We talked with Nydge about the story behind his first solo project and how dedication to a craft can be the best medication of all.

AF: I heard you were named after a race car driver – who is it and what’s the story behind that?

Nigel Van Hemmye: I was named after Nigel Mansell, who drove in Formula 1 with a thick, caterpillar mustache. After hearing one of the announcers say his name on television one Sunday afternoon, my mom decided not to name me Colin and go with Nigel. My Grandma read Colin as “colon” and that might have influenced her decision as well. Most people I meet associate me with Nigel Thornberry. Every now and then I get an XTC fan sing me, “We’re always making plans for Nigel.” I probably know more dogs named Nigel than I do people. I’m just out here trying to give Nigels a good name.

AF: Although the project definitely feels like electropop, I hear some early 2000’s rock influence — did you listen to a lot of Strokes-era music growing up?

NVH: I was in Germany for an exchange program at 16 for a month. One weekend my new German friends and I went club-hopping in Berlin. All of them were playing The Strokes! I distinctly remember everyone yelling along to the lyrics. Music like Franz Ferdinand, The Shins, and Phoenix bring me back to that moment. Growing up I listened to anything from Nine Inch Nails to Empire of the Sun to really wonderful, obnoxious techno and dubstep. I actually made really bad techno songs under the name “Nydge” in high school.

AF: I know from your film that this album was a coping mechanism for your anxiety, but a lot of the tracks sound upbeat/peppy – can you talk about that choice and how some of these songs came together?

NVF: I think about music as an escape – a place I can go where things make more sense or sometimes don’t have to. There’s an amazing notion in psychology about the concept of “Flow” or being in “The Zone” which I feel like I enter when on stage or producing or jamming. It’s a very soothing and uncomplicated feeling. Anxiety for me has always been the over-abundance of thought: racing mind, paranoia, irritability until it crashes into panic. Learning to do something so naturally that you enter that “zone” or “flow state” is the coping part. It’s the process rather than the product. My greatest hope is to either give a listener a brief escape from the negative or enhance the positive experience they are already having.

Full disclosure – I feel the best foot to put forward is one which is upbeat and peppy. It’s fun to play live, it’s easier to land on movie, TV and commercial work and there’s a huge demand for it on the radio. “Immortal Youth” was actually born out of the skeleton of a song I was writing for sync but decided to keep. “Baby, I” came from what I thought a car commercial would sound like with my voice singing about anxiety.

AF: “Come Over” and “Y U Gotta B” are about how anxiety affects a relationship. Can you talk a little more about the specific experiences/hurdles in a relationship that are a result of anxiety?

NVH: I think from the outside anxiety can present itself in a myriad of different ways. Ultimately for me it’s about stress management. Relationships can be stressful – even the positive parts. Anxiety also presents itself as my relationship with the future. “Come Over was the expression of worry about a future with or without someone. Stress in this way comes from some of the decisions I was refusing to make – either not allowing things to progress forward or not having difficult but important conversations about ending things.

With Kim Vi, Y U Gotta B is a playful take on how confusing and frustrating it can be when you don’t know what the other person is thinking but you’re still very much invested in them. What they do or say is magnified under the lens of your adoration, and anxiety comes in and whispers in your ear: “They’re playing with you. They don’t really like you…” which really comes down to a lack of trust and communication.

AF: This is your first cohesive piece of work where you are the centerpiece – how does that feel?

NVH: It feels great! For the longest time, I felt like I was producing and performing without ever getting to know myself separate of others. I relished in the collaboration and the learning it brought me but I still somehow felt unproven or incomplete. The more I wear the “solo artist” hat, the more I understand the choices other artists make, both personally and within the industry. I’m here to constantly improve, challenge myself and others to create and try their best. On a lighter note, I had these songs, I loved them, I had a platform, and no good answer to the question: why not?

AF: Did making the explanation video for the EP put you in a vulnerable place?

NVH: Yeah, but also no. I’m very up front about my anxiety and panic disorder. I’m not really ashamed of it and I don’t think others should be [ashamed of theirs] either – although I understand why they are. I wrote the whole piece as a short story which I sent to a couple friends who said I should share it. I think I hesitated for a microsecond and then wrote up a shot list for the short film. I acknowledge wholeheartedly I am not perfect and one of the best ways of coping with anxiety is sharing the strategies I’ve garnered over the years with those who struggle as well. At the end of the day, music is my own personal worry stone, something through which I can pour in my doubts, insecurities and feelings and come back with not only something I’m proud of, but a more thoughtful version of myself. The lesson it endlessly teaches me is devotion to a craft or skill is one of the most meaningful relationships you can have with yourself and the world.

How EDM Helped Me Heal from Anxiety

It’s June 2016 and I’m testing how low I can get before breaking down. I’ve worked until midnight and gotten up at four to churn out more writing assignments. Seeking comfort from the stress, I reach for the chips in my cupboard, eat more than I intended, panic, and make myself throw up. Unable to focus on an empty stomach, I do it all over again. I move my laptop to Starbucks and order iced cold brew after iced cold brew, telling myself to focus until I’ve finished my 18th article of the day. My stomach feels like negative space.

I write a resignation email for my most stressful job and fantasize about sending it, knowing I’ll never have the courage. I don’t need the money, but the thought of turning down work makes me recoil. I must be successful and success means more bylines and more money.

This is a pattern I’ve become all too familiar with. But at least this time, I have something to look forward to. After another four hours of sleep and 15 articles, I’m headed to Vegas for Electronic Daisy Carnival, an electronic music festival I’d never heard of until the press trip invitation arrived in my inbox.

To accommodate my crazy work hours, I fly in the night before and pull an all-nighter. I sign in for my shift at 3 a.m. from a casino cafe and churn out 7 articles until it ends at 11. Just when I think I’m done, my editor keeps me late to post an update on the Orlando alligator attack.

Meanwhile, a college friend’s blowing up my Facebook chat, begging me to join her in Ibiza in two weeks. I can’t because of this goddamn job. Getting time off is impossible.

Skrillex and Diplo’s “Where Are U Now” wakes me up from a three-second, sitting-up nap. Emboldened by the catchy riff punctuating Justin Bieber’s refrain and fantasies of Ibiza opening parties, I write another resignation email. This time, I type my supervisor’s email address in the “recipients” box.

I still can’t hit “send,” but getting close makes me feel wild. I pack up, put on a tiny $3 romper, and walk along Las Vegas strip. As I pass Serendipity and hum along to Calvin Harris’s “This Is What You Came for,” I visualize myself lounging by the fountain, eating over-priced, calorie-packed ice cream. That would be self-indulgent. Unproductive. Bad. Glorious. Free. How freeing it would be to be bad. I don’t dare enter, but the thought alone loosens my mental shackles.

Something has to change this weekend. Either life as I know it will be destroyed, or I will. Either the part of me that forbids eating ice cream and dropping work will die, or the part of me that wants it will. I secretly root for the former.

As I enter the Las Vegas Motor Speedway that night with a parade of EDM heads in wings, animal faces, and bathing suits, that little voice in me that wants to fuck work and go be an ice cream eating fairy kitten princess says, “Hey, there. I missed you.” I pass giant glowing flowers, foreboding owl statues, and a tiny schoolhouse where people are coloring. This is the closest thing adults have to Disney World.

My pace picks up. I don’t know where I’m running, only what I’m running from: everything outside this land over the rainbow the Nevada dust had dropped me in.

In a pavilion where Russian DJ Julia Govor is playing, I make timid, barely detectable movements, flashing back to middle school dances. Then, I see a dude doing a little catwalk in a floor-length fur coat and bull horns.

Oh, OK, so nobody gives a fuck. This is not middle school. This is not a networking event. Toto, we’re not in New York City anymore. No matter what I do, someone next to me will be crazier.

But nobody’s judging the crazy person either. I want to be the crazy person. The one people compare themselves to so they can shed their misdirected shame. I run from stage to stage doing exaggerated moves I learned in zumba class or ballet or wherever the hell I picked them up. I smile at everyone, not caring if they smile back, but they do.

A cute guy intercepts me to ask where the bathrooms are. I tell him I don’t know, and his glance lingers on me. “Can I kiss you?” he asks.

“Sure,” I shrug, because why not, and we make out amid the blending cacophony of DJ sets. He gives me his number and tells me to let him know if I come to LA.

I can’t believe this is actually a way to live, I think. This is a world where I don’t have to prove anything to be accepted. Where I don’t need a pretentious OKCupid profile to get a kiss. Where don’t need a job to feel good about myself. Where my only job is to have fun.

The next morning, I hit “send.” Three minutes later, my boss asks if she can change my schedule to keep me. Maybe, I think, but not if that rules out Ibiza. “I’ll come,” I Facebook chat my friend.

On the bus to the next day’s festival, I spot a woman with rainbow hair. I see something in her I want to bring out in myself, so I sit beside her and recount my spontaneous makeout sesh.

After flirting with a new guy in line, I see her again at Anna Lunoe’s show. Then, as the neon lights glow against the blackening sky, she gives me molly on a rooftop overlooking the ferris wheel.

On my way back to the stage, the guy from the line asks why I didn’t answer his text. I hug him and walk on, throwing off my shirt. I can do better.

I meet the LA guy by the bathrooms, and we make out again. After chugging his water bottle, I say with honesty I didn’t know was in me that I’d like to go off by myself again. Stupid boys. I’ll have more fun alone because I’m fun. I’m a fairy kitten princess, dammit.

I merge with a crowd jumping and shouting through JAUZ’s mix of System of a Down’s “BYOB.” This is the best moment of my year, I think, and then I think about how contrary that is to everything I believed. The thing that made me happiest was not when my income hit six figures or when I published 20 articles in a day or when I lost five pounds or even when Whoopi Goldberg discussed my writing on The View. It was when I was was doing something so incredibly unimpressive (unless screaming “why do they always send the poor?!” louder than anyone else is impressive). Maybe you don’t have to suffer for the best things in life.

The next day, I realize that in an attempt to film the festival, I accidentally recorded my trip. “The themes in my life,” I listen to myself telling my rainbow-haired friend, “are discipline and deprivation. Whether it’s food or work, it’s all the same.”

When I hear that, I know hanging onto that job would be just as destructive as hanging onto my disordered eating. As Anna Lunoe and Chris Lake’s “Stomper” fills my hotel room, I tell my boss that if she wants me to stay, she has to pay me more. As I anticipated, she can’t.

I panic with the urge to go work on other jobs to make up for that one’s loss. Instead, I return to Serendipity, get an ice cream sundae, and don’t throw it up or keep eating after I’m full. I chuck the half-empty cup in the trash and call up a guy I’ve been crushing on as I walk along the strip. Then, I stop inside Sephora and buy makeup, something I’d always considered too indulgent. On the way, a guy sees my arm band, says “EDC fam!”, and hugs me like we’re long-lost relatives.

Over the next two weeks, I jog around my neighborhood listening to Elliphant’s “Not Ready”:

“I guess I’m not ready for reality / A young woman in a new world / I have a big responsibility / to live life wild and free like a bird / Now is the time to be dancing.”

My first night in Ibiza, as Chris Liebing fills the Amnesia opening party, I ask a German guy I would’ve deemed too hot for me before if I can bite him. We fall in love in just two days, and I leave in tears. But on the plane home, I realize New York and I are over anyway. I’m going to travel the world like I’ve always told myself I couldn’t, and Germany’s my first stop. I spend my flight to Dusseldorf transcribing an interview with Mexican DJ Jessica Audiffred, who told me,

“People want to experience a festival. People want to get crazy. They just want a place where they can let their emotions go. They just want to have fun. They just want to get wild and electronic music can give that and a lot of other things. Just to be in the festival scene, you realize why people go. You realize why people are interested. I think electronic music is a way for people just to be free and just to be themselves and have fun and let everything go.”

Slowly, my inner fairy kitten princess takes power back from the workaholic, money-driven person I never wanted to be. Now, nine months since EDC, I’m partying in a new country practically every month, I haven’t made myself throw up since last summer, and am still with the guy from Amnesia. And I’ve got rainbow hair.

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The right photo was taken the week before EDC; the left was taken the week I arrived in Germany.

My world used to extend from the Kips Bay studio apartment where I worked myself to the bone and stuffed my face to the 28th Street Starbucks where I filled my empty stomach and heart with cold brews. Now, it’s expanded through the beaches of Ibiza, the nightclubs of Berlin, the casinos of Vegas, and the Brooklyn clubs I used to pass by because I was “too busy.”

But there’s much more fairy kitten princess left in me, telling me to chuck it all and be a DJ, and she grows louder every time I hear “Stomper.”