Tormented by Earworms: Music Stuck in My Head

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Reader’s Question

This is weird for me, but probably not for you. This has never happened to me before in my life, but for the last few months I get a few lines from a song stuck in my head and I can’t get it out. It’s CONSTANT and driving me nuts! If I’m not actually thinking about something, the same lines keep running through my head; even if I’m asleep and wake up, it keeps going and going. I’m 37 years old and this is freaking me out. I have anxiety about it and don’t know what to do. If I try meditating or praying, which has worked for me in the past when I want to calm my mind, it doesn’t work. Please help!

Psychologist’s Reply

You are experiencing what is called an “earworm”. An earworm is a repetitive song or section of a song that seems to get stuck in an endless loop in our thinking process. While there is no “physical” earworm, nothing you can put on a fishing hook, it is a very distracting, repetitive, obsessive yet musical thought. Most people experience earworms from time to time, especially connected to commercials, certain songs, or activities. One of the nastiest was the “Baby Back Ribs” commercial in the US several years ago. Childhood songs are also common earworms, especially “It’s a Small World”. Parents often find themselves tormented by the tunes from their children’s favorite shows.

In clinical terms, an earworm is a manifestation/symptom associated with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or with low levels of the neurotransmitter Serotonin. It may be an indication that you are depressed. Neurochemically, depression is thought to be associated with the decreased availability of the neurotransmitter Serotonin in the brain. As our Serotonin levels decrease, we develop more and more symptoms of depression. As many individuals move deeper into a depression, they encounter OCD symptoms such as counting, cleaning/organizing rituals, handwashing, obsessive thoughts, preoccupations, and…earworms. If we think about it, an earworm is a musical obsessive thought. It has the same neurophysiological (wow, what a word!) basis as obsessive thoughts, counting rituals, etc.

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The presence of the earworm tells you that you are becoming more depressed and stressed. Have your stresses increased recently? Have you changed medications? While you mention anxiety, you didn’t mention medication treatments. Some antianxiety medications help, but medications for depression and OCD work better. Keep in mind that the earworm is really only one of many symptoms you’ll be experiencing, which may include sleep problems, increased thinking speed, fatigue, poor concentration, loss of interests, and even crying spells. To get rid of the earworm, I’d study symptoms of depression and review articles on the topic on this website. Take a few of the tests for depression and anxiety. Then consult with your family physician or OB/GYN and explore the use of an antidepressant also approved for the treatment of OCD.

This nonstop music is very treatable and will gradually disappear with medications…while your anxiety and depressive symptoms improve at the same time. It’s a weird symptom, but this is what makes this line of work interesting.

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