During sefira, many people ask for a heter to listen to music, some stating that it is their only way to cope. These people are struggling, whether in their home life or in their mental health, and their logic is as follows: “My life is really hard, and music helps me cope with my challenges. Can I listen to music during sefira? I really need it.” You might be reading this and be thinking something along these lines- “If you knew how difficult my circumstances are, you would know that I need it for my mental health!” Or perhaps, “Music helps me with my anxiety and depression!” The common theme here, that music is a necessary coping mechanism for distress, is addressed in DBT.
To understand the role of music as a coping mechanism, we need to take a step back. Our current society supports the belief that any type of distress is bad, and therefore, if we find things that can improve our distress - such as music, chocolate, or Netflix - we should use those things as much as needed to keep our distress low to nonexistent. Many people even see these techniques as the optimal solutions to their problems.
But here’s the thing - in these situations, what’s really happening is that we’re using music to distract us from difficult emotions, such as sadness or anger. In contrast to what we might think, distress is only truly something to distract from if it’s leading us to do something that will make our lives worse, such as engaging in self-destructive behavior. If the choice is between making our lives worse and listening to music, then please, listen to music! Music is definitely a helpful crisis management tool. In particular, listening to music that is not in line with the emotion can help - so no sad music when you’re sad, or angry music when you’re angry. But music as a distraction is not a form of emotion regulation. It can help us express ourselves, it can even help us mindfully attend to an emotion- and it can also be used as a way of managing our emotions that inhibits us from fully living.
Crises aside, we have to remember that the period of sefira is not supposed to be comfortable! We tend to try to tune out uncomfortable emotions, such as sadness, but that comes with a cost. Without experiencing the full range of emotions Hashem has given us, we live disconnected lives and miss out on the messages our emotions are trying to send us. When He gave us sefira, it’s because we are meant to feel those feelings of sadness! Hashem gave us the mitzvos to give us the best. In order to build a life worth living, we need to experience those emotions - all the way.
We often use band-aids, such as music, to deal with an underlying issue or a painful emotional experience. Don’t keep using the band aid, start treating the problem! Keep in mind, music is only one of many things in this world that can be inappropriately used to avoid experiencing our emotions. Only when we learn not to avoid our emotions will we stop surviving and start living.