Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

All Too Well

Fair warning: you do not want me on your Jeopardy team if one of the categories is pop culture. But when it comes to Taylor Swift, I just might surprise you. Like millions of Swifties around the globe, I was on my feet for the entire three hours of her concert and sang my heart out song after song.

Her record-breaking Eras Tour has crashed online ticket sales platforms in the US and abroad.  Taylor calls herself a storyteller. Undoubtedly, she is her own best protagonist. Her lyrics sing of heartache, yearning, loss, and love that are uniquely hers and universally shared. Even if you are not a Swiftie, you will appreciate the mental health messages that fill her songs. Consider, for example, Taylor’s iconic ten-minute version of “All Too Well.”

1. “We’re singing in the car, getting lost upstate / Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place.”  Just a few bars of deeply encoded music can flood us with memories and take us back in time to places and experiences we cherish from long ago. What is it about music, memory, and emotions? Music helps us remember more vivid details about events in the past. We remember where we were, how we felt, and who we were with – sometimes, music can even trigger olfactory memory. Because music activates areas of the brain associated with emotion and reward, it helps us both lay down new memories and retrieve stored memories.

2. “But maybe this thing was a masterpiece ’til you tore it all up.” Taylor’s version of All Too Well is ten minutes of remembering and soul searching as she attempts to understand why Jake Gyllenhaal ended their relationship. All Too Well (Taylor’s version) topped all kinds of records and became the longest-running number-one song in U.S. Billboard chart history. Why? Swift has an extraordinary gift for articulating experiences we all know but struggle to put into words. Who hasn’t experienced the loss of a breakup? It can be excruciatingly lonely. Songs like All Too Well help us feel seen and heard and less alone, which is always good for our mental health.

3. “From when your Brooklyn broke my skin and bones / I’m a soldier who’s returning half her weight.” Swift references her eating disorder here (and in other songs). For several years she had alluded to her struggles with body image issues and food, but it was around the release of Ms. Americana in 2020 that Swift explicitly acknowledged her history of an eating disorder and the work she did to get to a place where she can “recognize and diagnose toxic messages being sent to me by society, by culture about my body.” She has spoken out about the need to counter these pernicious cultural ideas. Taylor is keenly aware that many of her most devoted fans are adolescent and young adult women – the demographic most at risk of internalizing these unhealthy beauty ideals, developing an eating disorder, and/or experiencing poor body image, social comparison, and vulnerability to appearance-related social pressures. Speaking publicly about her personal struggles and her rebuke of this assault on women and women’s bodies has the potential to empower, inspire, and maybe even, help protect some of her fans from developing an eating disorder.

4. “But you keep my old scarf from that very first week.”  We commonly talk about transitional objects providing comfort for babies. Soft, cuddly, nice-to-the-touch blankets and teddy bears are classic transitional objects. The blanket belonging to the Peanuts character, Linus, may be the most famous of all. Transitional objects provide security and comfort to young ones as they learn to manage separations from caregivers and soothe themselves. We don’t talk about transitional objects for adults as often, but this line about Taylor’s former boyfriend holding on to her scarf reminds us how common it is to treasure objects that remind us of loved ones to comfort and console ourselves no matter our age.

5. “Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it / I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it.”  We all know the allure of fantasizing about going back in time to some real or imagined moment when life was sweeter or simpler, more joyful, or at least not burdened by the pain of our current circumstances. The dilemma is that there’s no going back. Traumatic life events change us. They produce a stress response that impacts the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex – regions of the brain involved in memory and emotion regulation. Trauma-informed therapies can help people work through the psychological and physiological impairments associated with trauma. Establishing new pathways and rewiring the brain is possible, but therapy and recovery take us forward, not backward.

Taylor Swift has sold more than 50 million albums globally. She has 10 Grammys, an Emmy Award, 23 Billboard Music Awards, 23 American Music Awards, and 12 Country Music Association Awards. She has broken all kinds of records. But her real superpower is in the community she has created at a time when young people are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and suicide at unprecedented rates. Whatever your troubles, Taylor has a song that will ensure you are not alone.  

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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