Heavy Metal Therapy and ‘Anti-wellness’ by Kate Quinn

Heavy Metal Therapy is a peer-led support and community psychology project for people who find heavy or extreme music beneficial for their wellbeing.

It is predominantly an on-line community and resource. We share stories of lived experience and accept multiple explanations of mental ill-health.

We are critical of mental health recovery research which suggests that listening to ‘negative’ aggressive music is associated with poor mental health. We believe that non-destructive engagement with the full spectrum of emotions, including those feelings that are often taboo to express, such as anger, can be a healthy way of processing and managing intense emotional experiences. This claim is supported by recent research into listening to heavy metal, and the lived experience of many of our community members.

Our emphasis on turning towards rather than away from intense feelings, as a coping strategy puts our approach in direct odds with some of the ideas that are common within mainstream mental health awareness and public mental health resources. For example, people are often encouraged to either distract themselves or try and act in opposition to what they are feeling when experiencing challenging emotions. Engaging in calming activities, like walking, baths and cups of tea, has its place, and may be valuable in supporting some people with managing overwhelming feelings. However, these approaches often don’t acknowledge systemic issues such as poverty and oppression, or appreciate that difficult feelings may be understandable in the context of a person’s life. It also might have several unintended consequences. For example, if we are encouraged to engage in activities that avoid strong feelings, we might end up fearing them. In addition, if we repeatedly push these feelings away, they will just keep resurfacing. This is similar to the positive psychology movement which has been criticised for promoting a reductionist view of ‘happiness’ that privileges certain personality traits and doesn’t necessarily result in improvements in well-being.

As such, we developed a theme of ‘anti-wellness’ that challenges the mainstream well-being narrative. This involves sharing images, research and stories that recognise the valid role of intense emotions, the importance of engaging with ‘inner demons’, and the role of systemic factors in well-being. We also engage in activities that don’t fit with traditional well-being messages, but involve turning towards emotions in non-destructive ways. Listening to heavy metal is the obvious one, but we have also come across other activities like ‘rage yoga’.

We build playlists together, host webinars, do workshops, and write academic stuff. We also try to engage in activism which highlights systemic barriers to wellbeing. Many of our activities also involve a humorous element. For example, the slogan ‘die, cry, hate’ reverses the popular ‘live, laugh, love’ type of messages often seen on cushions and fridge magnets.

Feedback from members suggests that the ‘anti-wellness’ material is helpful for them, both for its dark-humour and congruence with metal music itself. We believe heavy metal therapy supports people to engage with taboo emotions and find a community of like-minded people to share these experiences with.

Further resources

Website: heavymetaltherapy.co.uk

Sharman, L., & Dingle, G. A. (2015). Extreme metal music and anger processing. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9, 272.

Typical examples of music we listen to: Celebrity Skin (by Hole); Hedonism (Skunk Anansie); Live for this (Hatebreed); In my darkest hour (Megadeth); – You can’t bring me down (Suicidal Tendencies); & Don’t tread on me (Metallica).


Th is is a Sample Article from Asylum 28.2 (Summer 2021).  Subscribe to Asylum magazine.

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