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Playlist Therapy: Finding Healing Through Musical Expression

August 24, 2015

When I came of age in the early nineties, making mixtapes was a huge thing for me.

Like many peers of my era, recording songs off of the radio was a way to procure music, especially when my mother wouldn’t permit me to buy the whole CD if I was just going to listen to one song!

Additionally, hitting “Play + Rec” while some of the CDs I owned played a favorite tune helped me to craft a collection that was uniquely mine. Without even realizing it, I began to engage in a practice I now call playlist therapy.

The modern technologies of outlets like iTunes, Spotify, and countless other platforms make it even easier for me to craft a playlist that is personal. Not only that, these platforms allow me to capture moments and celebrate experiences.

Playlists can also create a musical life raft for riding out difficult emotional seasons of my life. It is my pleasure to share with you in this article some of the ways I’ve put playlist therapy to work for me, and in the comments section I’d like to hear some of your experiences with using playlists as well!

I got my first iPod back in 2006. Like many newbies to digital music, I was instantly amazed and pleasantly surprised by how easy it could be to make playlists. It was at that time that the notion of playlist themes became real for me.

In my mixtape era, the intention of making the mix was to capture pieces of music that I liked. Anyone who might find those tapes hanging around today would like have a time capsule-style glimpse into where I was at in my life circa 1991 (i.e., a young adolescent struggling for a sense of identity and acceptance).

When I met the digital technology, I began making lists along all types of themes such as, “My best spiritual tunes,” “Instant calm,” and “My cheap happy high.”

Yes, I still have several playlists on my device that collect 10 to 12 songs that are sure to lift my mood, at least somewhat, whenever I hear them. And I’m not ashamed to admit that Hanson’s “MMMBop” is one of them (please don’t judge me). The happy lists are also populated with a healthy dose of bands like Vengaboys and ABBA.

Going to this happy list is still one of my best go-to coping strategies when I feel the weight of stress or some heavy emotional work in which I may be engaging on aspects of my life. There have been times when, on a difficult drive to or from work, cuing up this playlist offered me a chance for healthy containment.

As I’ve learned in my own work and professionally assisting others, sometimes we need a container for keeping our challenging emotions managed, and other times it’s the best course of action to really be with a challenging emotional experience. To feel the feelings fully, to ride out the wave without shame.

During these times when that healing work calls me, playlist therapy is also there to assist. I’ve also made playlists along themes like “dancing out my anger,” “crying through my grief,” and yes, even “my awesome breakup mix.” I’ve made several breakup playlists after getting out of difficult relationships and I inevitably find that in letting the list evolve, the list typically starts as anger and angst, and then transitions me to a place of empowerment and claiming my life back. In making such playlists, you can choose to simply listen to them as vehicles for helping you feel the feelings. Alternately, you can dance, practice asanas, or otherwise move to them in a way that’s organic to you. Remember that if this process gets too challenging or overwhelming at any time, go back to one of your container playlists like “happy” or “calming,” Maybe even consider seeking support and sharing your playlists with others in your circle who can support you in this process of mindful listening.

As a facilitator of conscious dance who trains others to facilitate, I work a great deal with making playlists and teaching others to do the same. When we craft dance experiences for the community, it’s generally vital to work with an intentional theme.

That theme can be something as simple as “introducing the concept of mindfulness in movement,” to something multi-faceted like “the interplay between darkness and light.” Often, it makes the most sense to craft a class using a season, like “Spring,” one of the chakras, or even a decade of music to facilitate an experience for those attending your class. What I am getting at here is that your options for making playlists along themes and integrating them into your personal wellness practices are limitless.

Maybe you are already accessing the power of the playlist in your life—can you think of some other ways that you can take your use of the playlist a step further?

Here are some themes along which I’ve made playlists:

I’ve used many of these for my own personal dance meditation practice, yet I’ve also found value in sitting in mindful reflection as I listened, often journaling after the experience:

  • The yin/yang of saying “yes” and “no” (See supplemental playlist)
  • Nature sounds and songs inspired by nature
  •  Non-striving: giving myself permission to not try so hard
  •  Dancing the songs I’d like played at my funeral
  •  Connecting to the God of my understanding

Where would you like your next playlist to take you? Set an intention, let that intention guide your selections, and just notice what happens!

Photo Cred: iStock


Jamie Marich's friends and colleagues describe her as a renaissance woman. A dancer, musician, performer, writer, recovery ambassador, and clinical counselor, Marich unites these elements of her experience to achieve an ultimate mission: bringing the art and joy of healing to others. Marich travels internationally speaking on topics related to EMDR, trauma, addiction, and mindfulness while maintaining a private practice (Mindful Ohio) in her home base of Warren, OH. She is the developer of the Dancing Mindfulness practice and regularly trains facilitators to take this unique practice into both clinical and community settings. Jamie Marich is the author of EMDR Made Simple: 4 Approaches for Using EMDR with Every Client (2011), Trauma and the Twelve Steps: A Complete Guide for Recovery Enhancement (2012), and Trauma Made Simple: Competencies in Assessment, Treatment, and Working with Survivors. Her new book, Dancing Mindfulness: A Creative Path to Healing and Transformation is scheduled for release in 2015 with Skylight Paths Press. Marich is also a certified rational living hypnotherapist and completed the Street Yoga trauma-informed yoga teacher training program. In 2015, she had the privilege of delivering a TEDx talk on trauma (available on YouTube), and she made her first appearance on the popular Recovery 2.0 Conference with Tommy Rosen.