I live with a lot of anxiety. Sometimes it’s about specific things like making a request to someone that I’m afraid will reject me. Other times, it’s more general—part of growing up steeped in the fear of a vengeful god who could inexplicably and cruelly mete out punishment or snatch away loved ones.
I recently discovered an unusual but extremely effective way of soothing my pretty-much-daily anxiety: Johnny Mathis.
Let me explain…
Recently I have been reading Stephen Porges’ book The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory (because apparently I like reading about the nervous system in my down time)…no, but seriously, his polyvagal theory has been mentioned in so many places, from grad school to herbal conferences, that I felt the need to buy something directly from the source to learn more about the “science of feeling safe” as he terms it. He just happened to release a new book around the time that I was looking for something by him to read (yay synchronicity!!).
In the book, he talks about the way that tone, inflection, and quality of a voice can send neuroceptive (referring to the unconscious perception of the nervous system) messages, cuing us for either feeling safe or threatened.
I’m sure we can all think of a time when someone said something but their voice belied the content of what they said–the quintessential “I’m fine” with an edge that subsequently put us on edge. That’s an example of the neuroception of prosody, e.g. picking up on a “threat” in someone’s voice.
Well, it also works the other way around. We can pick up on cues that someone is “safe” by their vocals, which in turn can help us feel comfortable and relaxed.
Somewhat in passing as he was describing this neuroceptive ability, Porges mentioned that Johnny Mathis’ voice has the qualities that tend to make people feel safe.
So…what do I do? I trot off to look up this singer that I had never heard before…and I fell in love. I literally can’t get enough of listening to him; he makes me feel so calm!
A quick perusal of discussions and comments regarding Polyvagal Theory reveals that I’m not the only one who finds Mathis fascinatingly effective. I wouldn’t be surprised if a movement of “Johnny Mathis therapy” began thanks to Porges’ plug.
Of course, Mathis is not the only one whose voice can cue a sense of calm and safety. It’s not that he has a magical voice; it’s about how he uses his voice.
I hear similar qualities in other crooners like Nat King Cole as well as in the voices of people like Kristen Chenoweth and Karen Carpenter. I hope to be able to make a whole “anxiety soothing” playlist that I can turn on whenever I feel on edge.
It’s such an unusual but simple, inexpensive, and accessible method of soothing my hyper-vigilant nervous system. And now that I know what I’m looking for (having heard and felt it), I can look for ways to literally set myself up for feeling safe.
Curious? Listen to one of my favorites below!