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Heavy Metal Music & the Polyvagal Theory

Updated: Mar 27, 2020

I listen to some heavy heavy metal music... why is that?

The obvious reason is because heavy metal music is awesome. You and me? We cool. Mercedes and I actually talk about music a good chunk in our "Climbing the Ladder" series.

But from a polyvagal perspective, it might be because of a couple of reasons: it matches your state or it's helping you up the ladder.


I'm always fascinated at the way that we connect with music. Certain songs or artists simply speak to us with their music. The song gets us or the artist gets us. Like, they created the song for us or they were able to channel our inner feelings and thoughts into music form. Or when we hear it, we say, "That's me." Teens will use music in therapy as a way to show how they are feeling or express themselves. This is true of any music, not just heavy metal, of course.

The music matches us. It's a mirror reflection of our internal world, right? How many pieces of music speak to you? Really speak to you? It may or may not be the lyrics. Or maybe some of the lyrics but not all of them. Usually it's the actual instruments of the music: the beat, the intensity, the chaos or the prosody of the voice. The lyrics don't matter as much, in my estimation. But when the lyrics connect as well, it just gets us ever deeper.

So heavy metal music probably matches the state you're in - it's aggressive, loud, intrusive, angry, high energy. It's sick and tired of being quiet or passive. It's pissed off and reached its boiling point and has to erupt. Maybe just like the people that listen to it.

Look closely at the image of the mosh pit above. What you're seeing is basically a version of dancing when it comes to heavy metal. The crowd forms a circle around a swirling vortex of bodies that are aggressively shoving, bumping, pushing, jumping and even punching each other. Look at the people in the circle - they're using their upper bodies. Their arms are raised and their fists are clenched. They have positioned their torsos at their "target." No one here is turning and running away. Upper bodies are associated with the fight mode of the sympathetic autonomic state.

When we listen to any music, we have to ask ourselves what we're getting out of it. If we feel understood, then it's probably matching our state. If we feel some sort of energy shift happening, it might be helping us to become unstuck.


When we come out of shutdown, the first stop is sympathetic arousal. And the first part of sympathetic arousal is Fight. Once the Fight aggression is discharged, we flee (not literally necessarily) and then get to safety.

Heavy metal music then is like a conduit for our fight energy. As we emerge from shutdown and get that aggressive energy, listening to heavy metal music can be therapeutic. As long as we are able to sit with it and notice how we feel while we listen to it. How does our body want to move? How does our body feel? What sensations are there? What kinds of thoughts pop into our heads?

If you listen to the music and then dance, that's well and good. That's like a moment of joining the music and feeling understood. But if you can be mindful of the experience, that's where the unclogging can happen. As you're headbanging and moshing, notice what it feels like to be powerful. To thrash your hair around, bang your head down, use your shoulders and waist. Notice it without judgment and experience the music, don't just listen to it. Listen with your body, not with your ears.

Allow the process to happen. Embrace it. Allow yourself to feel powerful in a safe way. If you're under the influence of substances, don't. If you're using this as fuel to rob a convenient store, don't. If you're getting pumped up to go fight someone, stop. These aren't safe ways to channel the energy and will actually make things worse. Be in a safe place and really allow your body to experience the music.

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