Psychologists Say Holiday Music Could Be Bad for Your Mental Health

If you dread hearing Christmas songs on loop, you're not alone. It could even hurt your mental wellness.

There are a lot of Christmas traditions that are good for your mental health. Research has shown that putting up holiday decorations, even if it's a little early, can make people feel merry and bright. And the laughter that comes from reading kids' hilarious letters to Santa Clause also does your body good. But the one holiday tradition that could be secretly damaging your mental health is listening to Christmas music.

Don't get us wrong: Playing a beloved holiday tune that brings back warm memories of your childhood when you're in the mood is one thing. But when you're avoiding the supermarket because you can't bear to hear Mariah Carey belting out "All I Want for Christmas Is You," that's another story. Some retail stores start rolling out Christmas decorations—and the music that comes with them—well before Thanksgiving. According to The Tampa Bay Times, Best Buy begins cranking out "Here Comes Santa Claus" as early as Oct. 20, and Walmart starts to sprinkle in a "Frosty the Snowman" or two in mid November, pumping up the Christmas jams to "100 percent" on Black Friday.

That's probably because research has shown that music does affect how we think and act, even if it's only playing in the background. According to a landmark 1999 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, people buy more French wine when a store is playing French music and more German wine when German music is blaring. So it makes sense that retail stores might think that blasting Christmas hits would compel people to buy more toys for their kids. But that strategy can easily fall flat.

You see, plenty of people absolutely dread holiday music; according to a 2011 Consumer Reports survey, 23 percent of Americans do, to be exact. After all, Christmas can be a stressful time. For people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder or those who lost loved ones during the holidays, Christmas can be a depressing time of year. In these cases, hearing music that reminds people of the holiday could even be triggering.

According to experts, the effect can be especially pronounced if you're forced to listen to the tunes on repeat because of the U-shaped relationship between how often we hear a song and how much we like it—a phenomenon known as mere-exposure effect. We tend to enjoy a song when we hear it, but then that enjoyment hits a peak and takes a downward turn once we've heard it too many times.

"Anyone who has worked in a Christmas store over the holidays will know what I'm talking about," Victoria Williamson, PhD, who conducts research on the psychology of music at the University of London, told NBC.

"People working in the shops have to learn how to tune out Christmas music, because if they don't, it really does make you unable to focus on anything else," clinical psychologist Linda Blair told Sky News. "You simply are spending all of your energy trying not to hear what you're hearing."

So if you want to stay sane this holiday season, you might want to vary up the playlist a bit. And for more expert advice on how to get through December, check out 17 Top Tips from Psychologists for Dealing with Holiday Stress.

Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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