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Coping With Earworms and Musical Hallucinations

I enjoy writing about experiences from my own life so that my tips may help others.

How to cope with earworms and musical hallucinations

How to cope with earworms and musical hallucinations

Earworms and musical hallucinations are common phenomena in which certain songs get stuck in your head, sometimes repeatedly throughout the day or even as you sleep. If, like me, you struggle with the everyday annoyance of earworms and musical hallucinations, then I'd like to share some of the best ways to cope with them. These methods can help you manage earworms effectively so they don’t negatively impact your life too much.

What Are Earworms?

That seemingly uncontrollable part of your brain that fills every moment of silence with a catchy pop song? That’s an earworm, AKA involuntary musical imagery. It’s different than regular music-listening; it’s more like something you can hear but not control. And it drives people nuts, especially those prone to OCD or bipolar disorder (because both diseases are linked to dopamine imbalances in parts of our brain).

Over time, stressful life events can lead to increased earworm activity. That's why, as we will be discussing in this article, managing stress and increasing therapeutic activities play a huge role in coping with earworms and musical hallucinations.

Are Musical Hallucinations Different From Earworms?

Generally speaking, it is thought that earworms are harmless repetitions of melodies that stick and replay in your mind for a relatively short period of time. They happen after hearing a catchy piece of music or melody that may have caught your attention. Typically, they go away on their own after a while and are thought to be harmless.

On the other hand, musical hallucinations (MH) are a more complicated type of auditory hallucination where short loops of music or melodies are perceived on a recurring basis, and can become chronic, distressing, and prevalent in a person's day-to-day life. They are sometimes linked to mental illness disorders or hearing loss. This is the condition that I live and cope with every day.

So the main difference between earworms and musical hallucinations is that earworms are a phenomenon experienced by most people in day-to-day life, whereas musical hallucinations are experienced by people who suffer from OCD, bipolar disorder, or other mental conditions. Musical hallucinations can be described as auditory sensations that seem to occur without an external source. People experiencing musical hallucinations may hear songs they haven’t heard in years or it can be a part of their reality; it may seem like voices talking or music playing.

Are Musical Hallucinations Linked to Mental Health?

A recent study published through the National Centre for Biotechnology Information suggests that musical hallucinations may be linked to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression or OCD could also play a part. The researchers go on to explain what musical hallucinations are – vivid sensations of hearing music or voices when no sound is present – as well as how they occur and how often they happen. The team also wrote about a specific case study from their own clinical experience.

It's likely, in my own experience, that musical hallucinations are linked to levels of stress and anxiety, particularly in obsessive situations when we experience repetitive thoughts or feelings. It's almost as though the brain gets hold of those loops and fills in the missing answers with information that it already knows (such as annoying songs from the 80's).

I particularly related to an article that I read on Healthline, where a female patient with multiple sclerosis demonstrated symptoms of complex auditory hallucinations in the form of looping country songs. The only way she was able to get any relief was to turn on other music at night to sleep.

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Finding Therapy in Instrumental Music

People who are prone to musical hallucinations, in particular, hearing music when no music is playing, or earworms such as frequent repetition of a phrase, either audibly or subvocally, might be able to deal with these uncomfortable experiences by listening to their favorite songs. However, this may also run the risk of the new songs getting stuck in the brain instead.

My personal way of dealing with the upbeat, repetitive loops that usually pop into my head, is to turn on Spotify and find a relaxing, instrumental playlist. When there are no lyrics to the song, the brain is less likely to latch on to the memory of it.

Furthermore, softer and quieter instrumental music plays a big role in relaxing us, and therefore if the song gets stuck it will likely be less of an annoyance. Some playlists that work well for me are jazz, lounge, and study-focus mixes. If they are just playing very quietly in the background, or in my ear through one earbud, it draws minimal attention to the music while drowning out the other noise.

Distract and Confuse Your Brain

If you’re hit by an earworm, try to keep yourself distracted. Listen to music that isn’t exactly like your earworm song, read a different kind of book or watch a completely different kind of movie—anything that will help confuse your brain.

As an example, a hobby that I've recently taken on is metal detecting. The detecting equipment sends out signals and tones in a haphazard manner that (on a temporary basis at least) quietens the earworms and confuses my brain. By hearing new tones and signals that do not form a pattern, I am free of the musical hallucinations, at least for the time being!

Reduce Stress Levels

And finally, this is the longer-term solution for coping with earworms and musical hallucinations. Stress is such a major source of earworms because our increased stress level can almost feed the specific songs or tunes that get stuck in our heads and make them louder or more bothersome.

The best way to reduce stress levels is by practicing mindfulness, meditation, or even more activities that can clear and free your mind. By meditating on a consistent basis, we’ll soon find that earworms are not nearly as bothersome as they once were. It takes time and practice to develop our mindsets in order to cope with stress better but it will be well worth it!

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Conclusion

As far as I know, after years of coping with earworms and musical hallucinations, there is no medical cure to get rid of them completely. But, I have learned to find some ways to manage them to reduce the stressful impact that they can have on my day-to-day life.

If you find earworms and musical hallucinations particularly stressful, I encourage you to find some calm in any way you can, through meditation, self-care, soft instrumental music, and other day-to-day distractions that boost mood and promote wellness.

Above all, avoid listening to loud, vibrant music or other auditory irritants (such as television commercials) that can often trigger a new round of auditory perceptions, and keep stress levels to an absolute minimum.

These tips come from personal experiences and should not be replaced for medical advice: see a health practitioner to rule out hearing loss or other treatable conditions.

Sources

“Doctor, I Hear Music”: A Brief Review About Musical Hallucinations - The National Centre for Biotechnology Information

Earworms and MS: What Musical Hallucinations Can Teach Researchers - Healthline

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2022 Louise