While managing my autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis over the last 12 years, I’ve found music to be helpful in a variety of situations. Some songs help me calm down when I’m anxious, other songs allow me to just “be” in a sad moment, and some music inspires me or puts everything in perspective. Not surprisingly, research has shown that listening to music can have many positive effects on one’s mood as well as other aspects of the mind. Research specifically on the use of music in persons with chronic illness have found it to have beneficial effects as well.
With that in mind, I’d like to share my personal “chronic illness playlist.” I’ve divided the songs into groups based on when I have found them most helpful/appropriate, with some bonus stories/analysis regarding how I relate to them. I would love to hear your favorite songs for chronic illness or managing other difficulties in the comments!
Sad-ish songs for when you need to just feel what you’re feeling:
Although I often strive to see the positive side of difficult situations, I strongly believe there’s a value to being present to what you are feeling without attempting to push yourself into a different direction. There is mounting evidence that mindfulness training can lead to benefits in mental and physical health. Sadness and other negative feelings are intrinsic parts of the human condition and it can be therapeutic to listen to music that makes you be present for the feelings of sadness that accompany living with a chronic illness.
1) Why – Annie Lenox
Choice lyrics: “This is the book I never read, these are the words I never said, this is the path I’ll never tread, these are the dreams I’ll dream instead. This is the joy that’s seldom spread, these are the tears, the tears we shed. This is the fear, this is the dread, these are the contents of my head.”
This is one of my all time favorite songs. I relate to it from the break-up perspective as well as from the chronic illness perspective. I think anyone diagnosed with a chronic illness at a young age goes through a stage where they question, “Why?” There will usually never be an answer; I did all the “right” things by exercising, eating well, etc, and while we like to think that controlling those variables will ensure good health, it’s simply not true. Bad things happen to people who do the “right” things all the time, and there just is no rhyme or reason to it. Logically knowing that, however, won’t always stop us from asking or wondering “why” this is happening.
The section I quoted above really speaks to me…I’m the kind of person who has a life to-do list that stretches miles long, and it bothers me sometimes that RA can be a limiting factor (“this is the path I’ll never tread”). That being said, I do comfort myself with the thought that even without RA, I would never be able to achieve everything I want to do in this life because I have limitless desires/interests. There are many paths I’d like to tread which I will not be able to, partly because of RA but mostly due to mortality and my limited time here on earth!
2) Two – The Antlers
Choice lyrics: “You had a new dream, it was more like a nightmare. You were just a little kid, and they cut your hair. Then they stuck you in machines, you came so close to dying, they should have listened, they thought that you were lying.”
This song really hits home for me personally, as my path towards a diagnosis was winding and fraught with delegitimizing comments from healthcare professionals (who implied to my parents that I was covering up an eating disorder and later suggested I was “just stressed”). I am always hesitant to play “Monday morning quarterback” with my health providers, as hindsight is 20/20 and it’s not fair to say that my providers should have necessarily made the mental leap from my symptoms to my diagnosis in the early days. I understand the complexity of the system now as a provider as well. However, I will say that I was not always treated with the seriousness that my eventual diagnosis would suggest I deserved, and I will never forget the stark loneliness and fear I felt when it seemed no one wanted to help me get to the bottom of my health issues.
This song also touches on the impact of a chronic condition on loved ones. The overall tone of the song and album (see this article to learn more) is a lot sadder and reflects a much more complicated relationship than I have had with significant others, but I identify with the fact that at the end of the day, it can feel like it’s just you and the significant other facing the daily reality of living with chronic illness.
Before moving on to the next song, I just have to add/stress that the “Daddy” lyrics of this song in no way apply to me or my family. I am fortunate to have had rock solid support from my family and loved ones since my diagnosis, and in fact I might not have been diagnosed nearly as soon as I did if my parents hadn’t been so proactive.
3) Hide and Seek – Imogen Heap
This song really captures the surreal feeling of dealing with something unexpected or disappointing in life, whether that be a break-up, health condition or other adverse circumstance. It’s one of my go-to songs to pump up in the car while processing bad news or difficult situations. I don’t have a ton more to say about this song, I just love it!
4) Stars – Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
Choice lyrics: ‘All those times we looked up at the sky, looking out so far, it felt like we could fly, and now I’m all alone in the dark of night, and the moon is shining, but I can’t see the light. And I can’t look at the stars…”
This song is just perfect. I really relate to the lyrics above as they capture the transition from feeling invincible (prior to health problems) to recognizing the fragility of life. In case anyone is interested, the backstory of this song suggests it was written about the loss of a friend, and I think many can relate to it on that level as well.
5) Out of the Woods – Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift once said that she aimed for each song on her album 1989 to capture the feeling or emotion that she describes lyrically, and I think this aim is achieved with stellar results on, “Out of the Woods.” Many people with chronic illnesses can identify with the repetitive, pulsing question: “Are we out of the woods yet?” with respect to their health. One of the hardest aspects for me to manage about rheumatoid arthritis is not knowing when I’m truly “out of the woods.” Even if my medication is working, I don’t know whether or when it will stop. Many of the most effective biologic medications work well for a few years, and then the body’s immune system adapts to them and you have to try another one (this has happened to me once already). There is not a good video of the original version of this song, so I have linked to where you can listen to it and purchase it if desired.
Additional songs to check out that didn’t make my top 5 include: Parachute by Guster, which has a beautiful build to it (“It crept up on me, ignored all my pleas, begging to leave, no justice to name me. Fell out of the sky, cease it to be, without a reply, gravity fails me”); Her Diamonds by Rob Thomas (of Matchbox 20 fame), which was written about his wife’s battle with an autoimmune disease; Eyes Open by Taylor Swift, which has a nice line about “everybody’s waiting…for you to break down;” and Jolene by Ray Lamontagne, which is just haunting and beautiful.
The following songs have helped me feel more calm or grounded, particularly when I’ve been in an anxious state. They have been most helpful when I have recently received bad news.
1) Keep Breathing – Ingrid Michaelson
This song is simply gorgeous. Ingrid Michaelson’s voice is beautiful, and the repetitive, hypnotic nature of the lyrics works well for reminding me that sometimes, all you can do is keep breathing.
2) Hold On – Tom Waits
Choice lyrics: “Well your old hometown is so far away. But, inside your head there’s a record that’s playing, a song called hold on, hold on, you really got to hold on. Take my hand, I’m standing right here and just hold on.”
I just love Tom Waits’ gravelly voice. “Hold On” is also hypnotic and repetitive, which works to put me into a bit of a trace. “Hold On” tells a pretty detailed story, but even if you don’t relate to the story, I think you can relate to the main chorus and message to “hold on.”
3) Orange Sky – Alexi Murdoch
This song is also very hypnotic and calming to me. It reminds me that my “salvation” or the cure for my anxieties at times is love; in my case, I imagine the love I have for my family and friends, but I expect others may relate to it from a religious perspective as well.
4) Hoppipolla -Sigur Ros
Hoppipolla is Icelandic for, “jumping into puddles,” and on some level I just love that imagery. I really respond to the overall tone of this song, and it has personal relevance to me as I walked down to aisle to it at my wedding in 2012.
5) Teardrop -Massive Attack
Choice lyric: “Love, love is a verb, Love is a doing word, Fearless on my breath…”
“Fearless on my breath” is a beautiful sentiment; I love the image of being fearless in the face of adversity. Of course, I have a positive association with this song as it is the theme for the TV show “House,” which depicts many complicated medical conditions which people with chronic illness can relate to (although many of the cases are more acute than chronic). There’s a nice repeating theme of, “Is it lupus?” throughout the show, which brings light/awareness to the fact that autoimmune disease are notoriously hard to diagnose (in other words, it always could be lupus).
6) Dreaming my Dreams – The Cranberries
There is just something about this entire Cranberries album that is very relaxing and calming to me, although I will admit that many of the songs have a bit of a somber tone. This one is perhaps the most optimistic and calming to me.
The following are songs that help me focus on the positive, either through lyrics, overall musical tone or both.
1) With Every Heartbeat – Robyn with Kleerup
Choice lyrics: “Still I’m dying with every step I take, but I don’t look back. And it hurts with every heartbeat…”
There’s something hypnotic about the way Robyn sings, “And it hurts with every heartbeat,” especially from minute 2:40 through to the end. I think this song provides a beautiful mantra for people with chronic pain or illness. Yes, she emphasizes that it hurts with every heartbeat, but I’m still classifying this as inspirational because of the emphasis on not looking back, and the overall uplifting tone of the song.
2) The Remedy – Jason Mraz
Choice lyrics: “I won’t worry my life away…You can turn off the sun but I’m still gonna shine and I’ll tell you why, Because the remedy is the experience…”
This song was allegedly written about Jason Mraz’s friend’s battle with cancer, and it has some explicit references to battling illness (such as “we will cure this dirty old disease, ’cause if you got the poison I got the remedy”). This song definitely inspires me to not “worry my life away,” and focus on the real experiences possible to me at any moment.
3) Another Day – RENT Original Soundtrack
Choice lyrics: “There’s only us, there’s only this. Forget regret, or life is yours to miss. No other road, no other way…no day but today.“
This is definitely one of my personal anthems. Similar to “The Remedy,” it inspires me to focus on the moment and not get wrapped up in worrying about the future. The musical “Rent” has a lot of positive messages in it, for those who are interested!
4) Feel again – One Republic
This song simply pumps me up, and I love the sentiment of, “I was a lonely soul but that’s the old me.” It obviously relates more directly to a romantic situation than chronic illness, but I like thinking about being in a better place than the “old me,” moving forward in a positive direction.
5) Man in the Mirror – Michael Jackson
Choice lyric: “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”
Yes, this song is corny, but it has such a profound message about starting with oneself if one wants to see a better world. Having a chronic illness can easily make one feel a lack of agency, yet we always have the freedom to choose at least our attitude and our actions towards others. This song also reminds me that whatever I am suffering in the moment, I can still make the world a better place for others who might be suffering in different ways.
Songs that just make you happy:
The songs in this category are the most subjective and personal, so likely these won’t be as relatable to others as the songs listed above. Still, I think it’s important to point out the therapeutic value of that stock of songs that just makes us happy for some reason! That reason could be a nostalgic happy memory, the overall tone of the song, the lyrics, or a combination of the above. I suggest creating a playlist called “happy mix” for when you need to either sustain a happy mental state or inspire yourself to get into one, whether the reason is related to chronic illness or not! Here are just a few on my happy list:
1) King of Wishful Thinking – Go West
I was one of the first of my friends to get my driver’s license, and I have many fond memories of blasting this song on trips to the mall in the late 90s.
2) Now You Has Jazz – Louis Armstrong and the All stars live at the Newport Jazz Festival
As this is my personal “happy list,” of course I cannot leave out any jazz music! I have spent many happy evenings on the dance floor moving and shaking to infectious swing music. Something about Louis Armstrong’s voice just makes me happy. This particular video includes footage of some current swing dancers as well, for bonus happy points!
3) My Girl – The Temptations
You really can’t go wrong with Motown or Soul music. This song always brings a smile to my face!
I remember reading The Songlines in college, where Bruce Chatwin casually mentions that humans might have spoken our first words as songs, to the rhythm of our own walking. That always stuck in my mind as a beautiful image, and now that I have a child, I have witnessed how primal the human reaction to music is. I was absolutely shocked when my 11 month old started bouncing, smiling and shaking to music for the first time, completely unprovoked by my husband or myself. Music clearly has a deep effect on our mood states, and I urge all with chronic illness to consider using music’s effects to support their needs. To learn more, check out the American Music Therapy Association.