The worst had happened. My bike had a puncture and I would have to wheel it home, but my headphones were out of battery. Normally, for any walk that lasted longer than 30 seconds, I’d make sure that I had a podcast queued up. I was half an hour’s walk from my flat. How was I going to get through half an hour of… nothing? What would I think about? And that’s when I realised: I didn’t want to think at all.
I remembered a recent episode of The High Low in which Dolly Alderton talked about her obsessive podcast-listening habit, prompting lots of listeners to get in touch saying they could relate. I’ve become completely fanatical about podcasts. I listen to them while I take out the bins. I listen to them while I brush my teeth. When I had minor surgery under local anaesthetic, an episode of Ctrl, Alt, Delete played in my headphones throughout.
At weekends, when there are no new episodes out, I almost – almost – wish it was Monday. When My Dad Wrote a Porno, my favourite feel-good, laugh-until-you-get-funny-looks-on-the-tube podcast, wrapped up another season last week, I felt the same empty, hopeless twang you get when you have to say goodbye to a friend who lives far away.
I used to be able to spend hours daydreaming – one look at my school report cards will tell you that – but now, the thought of staring aimlessly out of the window and thinking about whatever pops into my head terrifies me. I need constant distraction, and thanks to the podcast library on my phone, I can usually have it. According to Ofcom research, the number of weekly podcast listeners almost doubled from 2013 to 2018, and half of podcast listeners are under 35 – almost encompassing the millennial category I fall into. Are they all as inexplicably afraid of being alone with their thoughts as I am?
“I put podcasts on to avoid overthinking during menial tasks like washing up, hanging up laundry – even while I shower,” says Charley, 27. “When I broke up with my boyfriend a couple of months ago, I spent an entire week with podcasts playing in my ears so that my mind didn’t wander back to him.” Similarly, Katie, 26, has been using podcasts to help herself tune out from difficult feelings. “Recently, my grandmother passed away, and I listen to podcasts to escape from my grieving,” she says. “I’ve been struggling to relax at night, so I turn to Desert Island Discs for help.”
My own dependency on podcasts also increases when I’m having a tough time, as they stop me from pointlessly ruminating. Sally Brown, a BACP-registered counsellor and coach, believes podcasts offer something irresistible to the millennial mind. “Overthinking is rife among millennials,” she explains. “Podcasts can give you a break from this, becoming a ‘tether’ for the mind – something on which to rest your focus, so it doesn’t wander off into overthinking mode.”
With mental health problems among millennials on the rise, is it any wonder we’re drawn to a medium that offers us constant, on-the-go distraction? Catherine, 37, struggles with anxiety and finds that podcasts can ease her symptoms. “I find some podcasts in particular act as a soothing balm when I’m stressed out,” she says. “I have favourite podcast hosts, whose voices can have a calming effect on me. I suffer from insomnia and sometimes use podcasts to help me sleep, too.”
But as helpful as podcasts are, there will inevitably be times when we can’t listen to them – like that fateful day with my puncture. And if you’re borderline addicted, that’s when things can start to get problematic. “I find the working day really uncomfortable if I feel like I need the relief of a podcast in my ears and I can’t give that to myself,” says Charley. “I worry that the silence would lead to me entertaining anxious or overly emotional thoughts that don’t help anything.” Catherine feels the same way. “If I’ve forgotten my headphones, I’ll buy another pair, because it makes me anxious to be without them,” she admits. “Because of my anxiety, prolonged periods of silence can lead to intrusive thoughts.”
Recently, my boyfriend brought me to an instrumental music gig, where the performers barely spoke (fun). When the lights went down and the music started, I felt panic rising– I knew I’d have to let my thoughts take their own course. It was uncomfortable at first, but as I started to relax, my thoughts began to flow along with the music. It was almost hypnotic – every so often, I would come to, not knowing how much time had gone by, and marvelling at how I’d managed to sit there and just think for so long without even realising I was doing it. I came away feeling surprisingly energised.
Sally believes that experiences such as these are vital. “Filling your spare time with someone else’s voice shuts out your own,” she says. “If you’re not aware of your default thinking patterns, you may find yourself feeling down for what seems like no reason. It’s only when we stop and pause that we can experience the ‘mind chatter’, and whatever toxic messages it may be giving us. We can then choose to detach from those thoughts by bringing our attention to the present moment.”
So maybe it’s time we made friends with our internal monologues again. And while I won’t be giving up podcasts any time soon, I’m learning to embrace the silent moments and accept whatever thoughts my brain offers up. Every day, I try to fit in a short walk in the park without headphones, and I’ve started yoga classes, which require being completely present in the moment – no distractions. I’m usually just wondering how the downward-facing dog got its name, when it in no way resembles an actual dog. Turns out my thoughts aren’t so terrifying after all.