If you’ve spent any time on TikTok, you’ve likely come across a catchy song or two, typically paired with a fun dance move. And if you’ve spent more time on TikTok, you may see a recent viral video claiming that getting a song stuck in your head is a symptom of ADHD or OCD.
“OK, I just learned five seconds ago that songs being stuck in your head on repeat is not normal,” the TikTok user says in the video, which has racked up over 600,00 likes. “A friend of mine was just giving me a life update, and she said she had run out of a medication because she didn’t go to get a refill ― and now that she’s back on her medication, she doesn’t have songs stuck in her head all day.”
On its face, it seems like it tracks. But at the risk of getting yet another one of those pesky, catchy tunes stuck in our collective mind, the truth is: “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.” And you. And all of us. Earworms are an extremely common occurrence.
What is an earworm, and why does it happen?
“It’s as normal as an itch, but a cognitive itch, where the brain scratches back and causes a vicious loop,” Shaheen Lakhan, a board-certified neurologist and professor of medicine, neurology and neuroscience, told HuffPost.
Self-diagnosis has become a phenomenon in the TikTok era. But while earworms themselves are not necessarily a sign of an obsessive-compulsive or attention deficit disorder, Roberto Olivardia, a clinical psychologist in the psychiatric department at Harvard Medical School, told HuffPost experiencing one or both can change the experience of having them.
“The typical experience would be having the chorus or the catchiest part of the song in your head,” he said. “With OCD, it’s about the response. They might get anxious if they can’t remember the song, or feel a moral responsibility to figure it out or else something bad will happen.”
For example, Lakhan said if the song stuck in that person’s head has to do with something like death, a person with OCD might experience the intrusive thought that because this particular song is stuck in their head, that must mean someone is going to die.
Lakhan added that “stuck song syndrome,” as it can be referred to, happens due to the brain’s wiring. “Both the brain area responsible for decision making and planning and the brain’s gearshift switching between thoughts and actions are hijacked and overactive,” Lakhan said.
For people with ADHD, Olivardia said it works a little bit differently. It does not trigger intrusive thoughts but rather just overstimulation.
“Music can be highly dopamine-producing, so it becomes a hyperfocus, which is different than an obsessive thought,” he said. “It’s not wrought with anxiety often. It’s almost just someone being distracted, so they’re more aware of the annoyance because it’s difficult for them to attend back to work when they can’t distract themselves from the new distraction.”
Here’s what to do if you can’t get a song out of your head.
Regardless, it can be a frustrating experience to have a song playing on a loop in your head all day. The good news is there are a number of ways to turn down the volume, so to speak.
“There have been a couple of studies, one from England, that found that chewing gum is a useful strategy, the thinking theory being that jaw movement actually reduces musical cognition,” Olivardia said. “It’s sort of the equivalent to not being able to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time.”
Other tactics, he said, include the Zeigarnik Effect, in which you either sing or play the entire song out or move your body in a different rhythm than the one playing in the song.
“When we think of music and dancing, it’s a real cohesive experience. We’re in a loop. That’s what we love about it,” he said. “But moving your body, say, slowly to a fast song disrupts the fluidity of that loop.”
If you’re experiencing an earworm, Olivardia said it’s sometimes best to just let it be. “Accepting it makes it go away faster than fighting against it, saying ‘how do I make this go away?’” Olivardia added.
Perhaps easier said than done, but it is a sound argument nonetheless.