“As you try not to think that, you have to remind yourself of it to see if it’s gone away,” Hayes said. “And there it is again.”
Hayes treated the woman by having her think the penis thought over and over again. First, the thought became less distressing. Eventually, it became less real, too.
Songify was designed for entertainment rather than clinical settings. A Songify spokesperson said the company knew the app had been used to treat speech disorders in autistic children, but was not familiar with its use in anxiety disorders.
Winston said the song technique works better than stress-management, distraction, or breathing exercises. A study out this month found that various defusion techniques, including singing the unwanted thought and saying it in a cartoon voice, reduced the frequency of the thought while making it less believable. The strategy worked better than both the control and another strategy called “restructuring,” in which the person tries to come up with an alternative thought.
Mark Sisti, the director of Suffolk Cognitive-Behavioral, has been using Songify for two or three years now. He said it tends to work best with people who realize their fears are slightly irrational, or at least are being over-thought. (Someone who just lost his job and is facing very real worries about making rent, for example, might not be the best candidate.) In addition to making the thought less foreboding, Sisti thinks Songify might work by “lighting up” different parts of the brain—the regions associated with music and pleasure, rather than fighting or fleeing.
Hayes has also used singing for other mental-health issues, such as depression. He occasionally has his therapy groups perform “depression operas,” with arias that go, “I’m really sad … I’m really really sad.” Other people put their worst thoughts on t-shirts, or send themselves emails that say, “Did you know you’re unlovable?” “You start playing with your own dark side and give yourself some distance from it,” Hayes said.
The process can seem perverse, since some of the patients’ fears—financial ruin, the death of family members—are quite serious. (To use my example, leishmaniasis is a serious scourge that afflicts poor people all over the world). But worrying obsessively about those things won’t prevent them from happening. They’re “unanswerable questions,” as Hayes calls them, and cycling through “what ifs” only gives them fuel. The point isn’t to suggest that the person’s worries aren’t scary, says Winston, it’s to develop “a different relationship with the thought.”
The therapists usually wait until they’ve seen their clients several times before suggesting Songify. How long it takes to work depends on the patient’s symptoms, but Hayes said he’s seen improvement within weeks. The person might not stop having the thought entirely, but they’ll no longer react to it with trepidation.
And because of Songify’s distinctive, robotic sound, they might even feel better right away.
Right after recording a Songify, Sisti said, “the person might say, ‘an hour ago, I was upset, and now I’m laughing.’”