FEATURE: OK Commuter: The Calming Influence of Sound and Music on Stress and Anxiety




OK Commuter

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The Calming Influence of Sound and Music on Stress and Anxiety


I know I have just written a feature


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that talked about the difference between people listening to music to block out people or block out the world but, as the fortieth anniversary of the Sony Walkman arrives on Monday (1st July), I have been thinking about the portability of sound; the way one can build their own private universe and hide away. That might sound like I am advocating ignoring people but, as someone who lives with anxiety, I know how stressful commuting is. We all have to deal with a fair bit of noise pollution, stress and upheaval getting to and from work and, when the day is done, I always love to listen to music or a podcast. I look around the London Underground and, for the most part, you see people on their phones or with earphones in/headphones on. Whether it is an early-morning commute or coming home at the end of a long day, I can understand the necessity of having sound/music at your fingertips. There is this line between shutting people out and trying to find some solace in a crazy world. I genuinely believe more people  are trying to claim some calm and soothe when they have their music/sounds on – if that sound does leak out then it risks being anti-social and disruptive. I feel, more and more, commuting especially is a real trial and test. If you are making eye contact as much as possible and not staring down at a screen, it is nice having selected sounds in your ears and watching people come and go.

So long as you are also aware of conversation/the fact people might need your assistance – keeping the volume fairly low and having that balance of privacy and awareness – then that is the best mix. Sony did not envisage how their Walkman would inspire generations and how technology would change it. The portability of music is the best thing about it: the associated feeling that people are blocking out others is more common regarding Smartphones and visual distractions…nothing to do with Sony and, actually, the problem of individuals who want to live this way. It is important to keep your commute calm without shutting out people and, depending on how far you have to travel, it provides an opportunity to enjoy an album, podcast or radio show. I have been getting back into Radiohead’s back catalogue and (have been) rediscovering their peerless best. The immense satisfaction of diving into an album and immersing yourself in its beauty is wonderful. As I said, keeping visual channels open is important but, as a soundtrack to the commute and bustle of life, it can be very calming and interesting. I do know there is a vast world of choice out there when it comes to podcasts but, if you do your research, you will find something perfect for you. In fact, the podcast market is ever-growing and competitive. If one wants to find a way of easing the stress of a commute and getting into a more positive headspace, there are choices a-plenty…



This article from last year documents the rise of podcasts and which genres are providing most popular:

The increase is across all age groups, but the steepest growth is now among young adults aged 15-24 – with around one in five (18.7%) now listening to podcasts every week.[1]

Ofcom collected data from a range of sources, including Rajar, ACast and TouchPoints, to explore the rise in podcast listening. Findings include:

  • Comedy is the most popular podcast genre, followed by music, TV and film.[2]

  • Half of podcast listeners are under 35. While only 29% of traditional radio listeners are under 35, this rises to 49% for podcasts.[3]

  • Almost all podcast listeners tune into radio too. Almost all podcast listeners (96%) also listen to the radio each week, though live radio commands a much lower share of their total listening activity (48%) than adults generally (75%).[4]

  • Radio and TV broadcasters are embracing the medium. Podcast versions of BBC radio programmes such as Desert Island Discs and Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review feature regularly in Apple’s iTunes podcast chart. TV broadcasters are increasingly interested in podcasts as a source of material for TV shows, or as an extension of established series (such as ITV’s podcast Love Island: The Morning After).[5]

Ofcom’s research shows that UK listeners access podcasts from a range of sources. Among the most commonly used were the BBC website and app (used by 36% of podcast listeners), YouTube (26%) and iTunes (25%). Other sources included streaming services such as Spotify, and newspapers’ websites or apps.[6]

Ian Macrae, Ofcom’s Director of Market Intelligence, said: “Podcasts are booming in the UK, and broadening people’s listening habits. Every age group is getting involved, but the most explosive growth is among younger adults”.


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I am a bigger advocate of music and suggest that, at a time when most of us are listening to tracks and not investigating an album in detail, a commute or time alone is a perfect excuse. I also listen to BBC Radio 6 Music and, whilst one needs a break to focus on life and not be distracted, having the radio in your ears is very beneficial. I know we are becoming more anxious in general and, for a lot of us, that is augmented and made evident by noise and the volume of life. If you live in a city or not, it is unavoidable really. Rather than live with that anxiety – obviously one needs to approach it from a medical and psychological point, too – having those brief moments of focus and calm is invaluable. There are podcasts for curious minds and those who love their music. If you want to discover what is hip and happening then there are various lists that guide you to the must-hear podcasts. It is great discovering a new favourite or these great one-offs that can give you much-needed conversation, relief and entertainment. One might argue that, if you are actively seeking out discussion and company via podcasts, why not get that from people around you?! That is a fair argument but, in a practical and logical sense, you are not always going to talk to people on a commute or feel comfortable doing that.



So long, as I say, there is this passage of acknowledgment and openness then I feel one is perfectly fine getting stuck into a podcast or album. I have just gotten into podcasts myself and am spellbound by all the options available. One can definitely not complain because, from true crime podcasts to ones concerning history and literature, there is a great wave. Also, podcasts can provide education and knowledge. Many people do not sit down and read a book and, if you are listening to an audiobook or podcast, that can be a way of enriching your mind without having to dedicate some time to sitting down and reading. If you are thinking about listening to music/podcasts/radio on your way to work or when you are out on a run, there are articles that explore the best headphones and earphones so that you can enjoy what you are listening to and not disturb anyone else at the same time. It is worth spending some time researching podcasts (if that is what you like) and there are some helpful articles that can reveal some pearls. There is a serious point to all of this: the fact that, more and more, I am seeing people stressed and made anxious by daily life. It can be hard to hear someone experiencing anxiety and, like myself, it can be a real burden. I am seeking other methods of support – as everyone should when things get serious – but I do feel like music and sound can provide benefits. I keep coming back to the point regarding privacy and whether that is anti-social.


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One of the blessing of technology is the fact we can bring books, shows and albums with us and be mobile, active and nourished at the same time. I am a big advocate of listening to albums when going about your business because there is that twin benefit of discovering something great and helping ease any anxieties. In fact, as this article explores, music is essential when it comes to helping those who live with anxiety:

Researchers have documented that listening to music can be effective for reducing pain in people who generally have high levels of anxiety. Investigators discovered music can be used as a distraction and is effective among those who can easily become absorbed in cognitive activities.

In the study, researchers from the University of Utah Pain Research Center evaluated the potential benefits of music for diverting psychological responses to experimental pain stimuli. Accordingly, the key to successful pain control from this method would be the degree of engagement by the patient in the diversion task

Music helps reduce pain by activating sensory pathways that compete with pain pathways in the brain, stimulating emotional responses, and engaging cognitive attention. Because the music is competing with the pain pathways in the brain, it appears to help to take the focus away from pain.

Music, therefore, provided meaningful intellectual and emotional engagement to help reduce pain”.

It is great that this research has come out and I do feel we need to understand more about music/sound and how it can help a lot of people. On a purely medical basis, there is a lot to be said for counselling and medication but, in a very easy and accessible way, music and audiobooks, for instance, are a fantastic supplement.

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There are benefits regarding audiobooks and I do feel like podcasts transcend mere entertainment value. We all have another stress and annoyance in our daily lives. From the offices filled with germs to the commute of death…giving yourself a break and thinking about your mental-health is no bad thing! Whether you prefer the humble album or like to listen to radio whilst travelling, there are numerous benefits. Maybe it is that warm of conversation or the license to lose yourself in something imaginative, escapist and wonderful. From educational podcasts to a great breakfast radio show, the sound can not only ease anxiety levels but it can also provide great enrichment and education. I will celebrate the Sony Walkman at forty on Monday but, back in 1979, who could have foreseen where portable sound has gone. From the humble Walkman and the delight of being able to take music with you and not disturb anyone; now, in 2019, so many of us can take libraries, sonic libraries and pretty much anything with us. I do feel there are some who are too engrossed in their phones for no reason but, when you next see that commuter or person with their earphones in, seemingly objecting to any human contact, consider they are finding focus and we cannot easily judge. I know many people who listen to music because they do not like background noise and they can get rattled by the stress of life. If you are in that situation but are used to listening to the same albums and shows all the time, have a look online because there is so much out there. I have stumbled on a few podcasts and it is amazing how transformative something like a podcast can be regarding mood and mindset. When all the world around us is spinning, moving fast and unpredictable, the comfort and guidance of sound provides that much-needed…


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STABILITY and relief.