Sometimes, depressive episodes are easy to recognise and map out; you can point to those few months last winter and think, Yes, that was when I didn’t see anybody and ate only bright orange ravioli from a tin with a teaspoon. With the same awareness, you might sense when an episode is looming, too. Maybe you start finding it harder to get out of bed. Maybe you feel that pressure in your chest or can’t be bothered to reply to WhatsApps anymore. I personally can’t always tell when I’m entering that murky headspace. But one clear indicator is that I can no longer listen to music. It’s too intense. Instead, I turn to podcasts.
Over the years, podcasts have become both a soother and a crutch. For me, they don’t have to be about meditation or "staying positive!" They can be about anything, from investigative journalism like Caliphate by The New York Times (sure I get depressed, but at least I now know all about the brainwashing strategies employed by ISIS) to more conversational co-hosted podcasts like RuPaul’s What’s The Tee, Gimlet Media’s The Nod or literally anything by This American Life. Just as long as there’s lots of talking, new information to absorb and most importantly: it distracts me from that feeling. When just existing in a body feels hard and heavy, podcasts can remove me from it, even for an hour or two.
I thought this was a coping mechanism that only I leaned on. Other people "go for walks" or have long baths or smoke weed (obviously alongside more tried-and-tested strategies like therapy and medication), right? But I’m not alone, apparently. "The weird thing about depression, I think, is that it’s the most boring, nothing-y thing in the world, but also emotional and exhausting," Becca, 23, tells me over the phone. "So it helps to do something distracting but also not too mentally taxing. Podcasts fill that space for me. I used to read books but it’s hard to concentrate if you feel like shit. With podcasts you can just lie down and soak up their words without really trying."
Lauren, 24, says basically the same thing. "One of the major things that helps me during a depressive episode is distraction," she explains over email. "In the past, I’ve binged TV shows to take my mind off feeling bad, but podcasts sometimes feel more manageable because they’re not as much of a sensory overload." She continues: "Podcasts often feel cosy and friendly – you feel as though you’re getting to know the hosts of your favourites over time, and they can become a bit of a go-to comfort blanket when I need a pick-me-up, or even just some noise to give myself something to think about other than my own feelings."
Unlike me, Lauren prefers to listen to uplifting or comedic podcasts that make her laugh, rather than serious, crime or investigative series. But anything that has some light chat will do. "I like podcasts which are funny, and which have the feel of friends chatting," she explains. "Especially I like Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness – just because JVN is so happy and charming, and also because the topics are often genuinely interesting things I’d not thought about before – and Seek Treatment, hosted by Catherine Cohen and Pat Regan, which is basically just like listening to two good and very funny pals."
But why is this? Why are a bunch of people with depression plugging into their phones and listening to strangers, instead of listening to their friends talk IRL? Dr Martina Di Simplicio, a clinical senior lecturer in psychiatry at Imperial College London, who also researches the thinking patterns which underpin mood instability, tells me that sensory activities – whether visual or auditory – can be very helpful for some. "I’m not able to give you data showing this," she says, "but sometimes when you’re depressed, you can’t get out of ruminating about things that went wrong or negative thoughts. And what we do know is that things which have a sensory component might be helpful in disengaging you from that verbal thinking."
Why podcasts though? Why not books, for example? "If you were reading, that might not be so distracting because you’re still in that 'verbal' way of thinking, whereas this has a more sensory direction, making it easier to get out of depressive thoughts," Simplicio explains. But she’s also quick to point out that all strategies ought to be looked at subjectively. "Any coping strategy, or therapy, is not good or bad for everyone. There are also people who might argue that distraction isn’t helpful because you’re not addressing the problem. But the two things don’t exist separately. Especially when things are particularly acute – you need something that takes you out of a certain frame of mind, then it might be easier to engage in the problem."
David Klemanski, an associate professor of clinical family medicine at Ohio State University, also points out that the act of hearing other people chat, even if you’re not actively involved in the conversation, can be comforting. "Feeling depressed can lead to isolation and increased loneliness," he says. "Podcasts may offer a way for the depressed individual to feel less alone and connected with others, albeit with a safe and comfortable distance. Ultimately, podcasts can’t healthily serve as a substitute for everyday interactions, but they have potential to help a person work through their depression if used appropriately."
In other words: If, like me, you’re prone to periods of ill mental health, it makes complete sense that you’d want to shut yourself away and listen to a group of people you don’t know chat among themselves, instead of engaging with your mates. It’s comforting and distracting, and where’s the harm in that? It’s a healthier coping mechanism than, say, drinking alcohol or other harmful activities. "Everyone has potential to feel down at times," adds Klemanski. "But if sadness or feeling down lasts longer than a couple of weeks, it’s important to recognise that this may signal depression. Anyone who believes they are depressed should seek support from others, including family, friends, and professionals."