James Hetfield: finding therapy in music

Anger blazed in his mind. James Hetfield was an angry young teenager. Who thought the whole world was stupid and unfair. His parents had an ugly divorce. And his mother refused to take medicine even when faced with cancer because of her religious beliefs. Her stubbornness led to her death when Hetfield was just 16 years old. And Hetfield blamed the world.

Hetfield felt he was not heard. He felt like he and his family were manipulated. And anger was his outlet. He was weird in that sense. When people are tickled, they laugh. When Hetfield is tickled, he gets angry. Anger was his primary emotion.

Fortunately, he heard Aerosmith. While he could not understand their lyrics, he could feel their music. He picked up a guitar and started strumming hard like them. Full body vigorous strumming. And he sang.

Music became his therapy. Hetfield’s anger got channelled into heavy metal. Heavy metal saved him. And it led to the founding of one of the most popular bands of our era: Metallica.

Motion regulates emotion

Just the motion of angry strumming on the guitar helped Hetfield regulate the anger in his mind. The music that poured out of him was glorious, but the way it changed him within was even more magical.

And Hetfield is not alone in this mental change. When Misty Copeland felt she lacked self confidence, she picked up ballet. Ballet’s discipline and expressive movement changed her mental fortitude. Copeland has spoken about how ballet gave her a sense of purpose and confidence. She went on to become the first African American to be a principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre.

Time and again, we have seen instances of where motion changes your emotion. Where hard strumming fixed anger. And dance fixed confidence.

Why does motion change emotion?

Behaviour shapes your identity. It’s the way your mind works. It believes in your actions. When there is a discrepancy between your action and your beliefs, your beliefs get adjusted and re-aligned to your actions.

Adrian Taylor and his colleagues from the University of Exeter conducted an observational research on 60 smokers. Their findings show how deep this runs. After just 15 minutes of light exercise, a chain smoker could resist their cravings for a much longer time than someone who did no exercise.

Light exercise is enough to change chain smokers’ self identity. Healthy behaviour conflicts with unhealthy smoking. Cognitive dissonance is powerful to change even addictions.

So how should you regulate your emotions?

Focus on motion. Do to feel. 

Motion releases neurotransmitters. Everything from endorphins to serotonin to norepinephrine. Which helps regulate your emotions.

Pinpoint the negative emotion you are feeling. And then pick a motion that would mitigate or release that emotion. If you are anxious, try tai-chi. If you feel anger, try vigorous activities. If you can’t focus, add mindful movement practices. If you feel sad, join a group sport.

If you can’t decipher your negative emotions, just add any positive motion. Run. Dance. Jump. Because all motion is good to regulate your emotions.

Action Summary:

In moments of emotional uncertainty, turn to physical motion. Add more movement to your life.