I scheduled my podcast listening like I schedule my workouts: Book Riot on Monday, J Train on Tuesday, U Up? on Wednesday, That’s So Retrograde on Thursday. And so on, and so forth. The charismatic hosts of these shows stuck with me during my morning commute, while I sweat on the treadmill, and throughout any other pockets of free ear-space time I could find. Until I noticed a distinct change: As I offered my eardrums to more and more of Spotify’s lengthy list of titles ranging from comedy and horror to wellness, I realized that listening to podcasts all day turned them into something that harms, not helps, my mental health.
It turns out that your brain can absolutely be overstimulated as a result of merely listening. “The constant listening of podcasts and music can definitely be problematic, as it can be a barrier to our ability to be fully present and focus on what is going on in the moment,” says therapist Michele Burstein, LCSW. “We definitely tend to pride ourselves on being multitaskers; however, if we are always doing so many things at once, it is nearly impossible to show up a hundred percent for anything.”
It does make sense, then, that when you’re not giving the thoughts in your head the air time they demand, they can to pile up like paperwork that needs to be sorted. And when you put your head to your pillow after a long day or have a spare, AirPod-less moment? Those unsorted thoughts can explode. Or, okay, they pile up to the point that you can’t ignore the mess any longer.
Furthermore, the actual content of the podcasts can also affect your mental health, Burstein says. “I know that podcasts are entertaining and informative, however, I find that people often use them as their new form of guidance or self-help. Some of my clients will come into sessions talking about new information they have learned on a podcast that is either validating or invalidating to their own experiences. The invalidation can also lead to stress and anxiety about their lives,” she says. (See: Me having an existential crisis about not reading enough after listening to my three—three!—favorite bibliophile podcasts.)
None of this necessarily means you need to delete your podcast library and toss your headphones into the nearest body of water. On the contrary, Burstein and psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, say the better solution is to challenge yourself to simply listen more mindfully.
How to mindfully listen to podcasts for mental health improvement
First, note when it is you feel the urge to take a mental break from the world around you. Is it during your morning commute? While you’re waiting in the world’s longest line? During commercial breaks of your favorite television show? Now ask yourself what you’re avoiding during these moments. “If you’re listening a lot at night, and that’s time when you’re not talking to whomever you would normally be talking to—like a partner—you might be experiencing disconnected feelings from them,” Dr. Saltz says.
Of course, your reason for tuning in to a pod won’t always be to avoid someone. Sometimes, for example, you’re just straight-up bored. In that case, setting clear and present boundaries for when you listen to podcasts—and when you listen to yourself—can be useful.
“Setting aside a time to ingest audio content can be very helpful.” —Michele Burstein, LCSW
“Setting aside a time to ingest audio content can be very helpful. If I were to walk to work reading a book or watching a television show, most people would suggest that it was dangerous because I wasn’t paying attention. I think we should think about listening to audio content in the same way,” says Burstein. “If you read a book or watch TV before bed, maybe that can be your time to listen to a podcast.” That way, you’re consciously switching into podcast mode rather than letting the lovely, chatty hosts of your go-to shows crowd your eardrums 24/7.
Shifting my own listening habits
Armed with the new tips of how to listen to podcasts for mental health improvement rather than detriment, I sought to pare down my own listening habits. First, I designated my before-work morning routine to be an audio-free zone, instead filling that time reading in the quiet of my room, meditating and reading my tarot cards.
During the hours I’m sitting at my work desk, I set aside about 30 minutes total of podcast time to soundtrack the more passive items on my to-do list. Then, come 7 p.m., I listen to one podcast episode while making dinner. After just a few days on this new regimen, I already feel a positive shift in the inner-workings of my mind. My silent mornings allow me to notice if I wake up in a certain mood rather than missing those signs, only to find them creeping up on me later that day.
I’ve also relearned that enjoying the realities of my environment, with no added audio entertainment, is super fulfilling. During a ride on the New York City subway, for example, I might see someone attempting the perfect cat eye as the train rattles through the tunnels, a sketch artist having a little more success with pen and paper, and children asking their parents, “How many more stops?” (Aka, the city-slicker version of “Are we there yet?”)
Essentially lending some structure to my podcast habit has reminded me that the present moment has a lot to say and allows me the freedom to synthesize my own opinions about my experience in the world. And still, sometimes, with the appropriate checks and balances in place, tuning in is the best way for me to take care of myself and feed my soul.
Alright so when you do listen to podcasts, we found the best ones for better financial health. And if you’re single, tune into these.
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