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5 Steps to Help You Make a Mental Health Playlist

Simple strategies to create a helpful self-care resource.

According to Spotify, people are listening to mental health playlists more than ever before. Users have searched for “mindfulness,” “calm,” and “self-care” 57% more than last year. Music can provide a variety of benefits for our well-being, regardless of culture, including improvements in emotional expression, emotional regulationi, self-esteem, self-control, life satisfactionii, concentrationiii, and memoryiv as well as decreases in anxietyii, depressionv, mental fatiguevi, and neurodegenerationiv. While the benefits of music can be amplified in counseling, therapy is not always accessible for individuals who may be in need. On the other hand, creating intentional playlists can serve as helpful mental health resource for many. Here are five steps to help you get started on your process.

Source: @omidarmin/Unsplash
Source: @omidarmin/Unsplash

Start with your favorites

Make a list of the tunes you love. If you use Spotify, your 2020 Wrapped year in review can be a helpful resource. If not, simply make your list by thinking about the songs that you have adored over time or tend to listen to most often in recent months. After making your list, listen to each song. Pay attention to what comes up as you listen. How does the song affect you? Is there a certain emotion that arises? Does a memory come to mind? Are there any changes you notice in your body (e.g., heart rate, breathing, energy level).

Source: Mohammad Metri/Unsplash
Source: Mohammad Metri/Unsplash

Prioritize mental wellness

When listening to your favorites you are likely to experience a range of emotions. While some songs may elicit positive sentiments, you may notice that other songs may have a negative influence on your mental wellbeing. In series of experiments exploring the effect of aggressive music in over 500 college students, Anderson, Carnagey, and Eubanks (2003) found that those who listened to violent music tended to have more aggressive thoughts and feelings. A mental health playlist is not merely a copy of your favorite songs. There may be songs that you enjoy, but do not serve as helpful for your mental wellness and should not be included in your playlist.

Source: cdx2/Unsplash
Source: cdx2/Unsplash

Divvy up playlists to help meet your mental health needs

After you reflect on the songs that benefit your mental wellness you may realize that they vary in utility. For example, some may serve to ground you when you are anxious whereas others may aid in boosting your mood when you are feeling low. One master mental health playlist may seem like the key to adding music to your coping skills, however, this oversimplifies the process. You wouldn’t want to use a hammer when you need a screwdriver, and when it comes to making mental health playlists your song selection process may be similar. Since your mental health needs vary, curate intentional lists for each of those essential areas. Then, you can sort your favorites into their corresponding categories.

Source: Blake Richard Verdoorn/Unsplash
Source: Blake Richard Verdoorn/Unsplash

Don’t limit yourself

A helpful mental health playlist does not need to be refined to just music. Consider exploring other sounds (e.g., nature, binaural beats, singing bowls) that have a positive influence on your state of being. For example, previous research has shown that listening to sounds from nature can help to calm one’s fight-or-flight response. Therefore, if you intend to create a calming playlist to help you intervene in moments of panic, perhaps you may want to consider finding natural sounds that help to bring you closer to your equilibrium. Further, if you are struggling with staying focused, pressures of stress, and/or rising blood pressure, recent research by Axelson and colleagues has shown that listening to binaural beats can help you to better regulate. In addition, mental health podcasts have been rising in popularity. Spotify reported a 122% increase self-help podcasts this year. Podcasts can be an accessible way to learn about key mental health information. In a study by Semakula and colleagues, individuals were able to improve critical thinking make informed choices as a result of listening to informative podcasts. Therefore, you may benefit from exploring mental health podcasts and selecting a few episodes for your lists.

Here are some suggestions to help you get started:

Source: Fixelgraphy/Unsplash
Source: Fixelgraphy/Unsplash

Keep them fresh

Creating purposeful mental health playlists is not a one-and-done task. As the days go by, you change, and your personal taste may evolve as well. Let’s say you press play on your mood-boosting playlist only to hear a song that seems as though you have heard it one too many times. The annoyance that may arise could defeat the purpose of the playlist altogether. Be sure to revisit your content to edit as-needed. Explore new music, episodes, and sounds that can serve as great additions to your self-care.

I hope these steps help you to get started with creating purposeful playlists to enhance your wellbeing. Stay tuned for the next part of this series, which explores practical ways that you can make the most out of your mental health playlists.

Please keep in mind that making mental health playlists can be a great wellness resource, but in no way replaces therapy. If you try these methods and still find yourself stuck, please seek professional help. The Psychology Today Directory can help you find a licensed provider in your area.


Emily Carlson, Suvi Saarikallio, Petri Toiviainen, Brigitte Bogert, Marina Kliuchko, Elvira Brattico. Maladaptive and adaptive emotion regulation through music: a behavioral and neuroimaging study of males and females. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2015; 9 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00466

M. Bradshaw, C. G. Ellison, Q. Fang, C. Mueller. Listening to religious music and mental health in later life. The Gerontologist, 2014; DOI: 10.1093/geront/gnu020

Leigh M. Riby. The joys of spring. Experimental Psychology (formerly Zeitschrift für Experimentelle Psychologie), 2013; 60 (2): 71 DOI: 10.1027/1618-3169/a000166

Chakravarthi Kanduri, Pirre Raijas, Minna Ahvenainen, Anju K. Philips, Liisa Ukkola-Vuoti, Harri Lähdesmäki, Irma Järvelä. The effect of listening to music on human transcriptome. PeerJ, 2015; 3: e830 DOI: 10.7717/peerj.830

Porter, S., McConnell, T., McLaughlin, K., Lynn, F., Cardwell, C., Braiden, H-J., Boylan, J., & Holmes, V. . Music therapy for children and adolescents with behavioural and emotional problems: a randomised controlled trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2016; DOI: 10.1111/jcpp.12656

Axelsen, J.L., Kirk, U., & Staiano, W.(2020). On-the-spot binaural beats and mindfulness reduces the effect of mental fatigue. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 2020; 4 (1): 31 DOI: 10.1007/s41465-019-00162-3