Whether we’re ready for it or not, the end of 2021 is here. With 2022 fast-approaching, the pressure to process not one but two calendar years of a global pandemic mounts—not to mention all the usual stressors of the holiday season, too.
My burnt out brain’s too exhausted to even begin to unpack all the stuff I had to compartmentalize just to get through the past year, and you may be feeling the same. Luckily though, we’re not alone.
For every fresh or ongoing trauma that 2021 collectively wrought upon us, there’s at least one podcast out there hoping to help us cope with it together.
For every fresh or ongoing trauma that 2021 collectively wrought upon us, there’s at least one podcast out there hoping to help.
From the pandemic wall that evaporated into the thick pandemic fog, to the Great Resignation of a workforce being asked to clock in while the apocalypse rages on, or the racial trauma of more police brutality and its perpetrators’ historic days in court, or political divides that tore our democracy and families apart, or another year of rising sea levels and climate anxiety—it’s too much to handle alone. If 2020 was like a car crash, then 2021 was our first agonizing wave of pain after the adrenaline that’d kept it at bay wore off.
Now, no podcast can solve the multitude of crises that come with facing the third calendar year of a global pandemic. But as one of our most intimate and least screen-heavy mediums of entertainment, they are uniquely equipped to help in ways TV and movies can’t.
Of course, no piece of entertainment media can ever do the work of a mental health professional. The podcasts below are not replacements or even supplements to professional therapy and/or counseling, which should be the priority for anyone experiencing a mental health crisis. These hosts are everyday people, comedians, journalists, writers — and even the licensed therapists emphasize their shows are not therapy (and offer resources for finding one). Also, while Mashable vetted every recommended episode, we cannot speak to advice given elsewhere on these shows.
Lastly, remember that processing grief and trauma is different for everyone. So if you try one and start to feel not-so-great, skip it. There are plenty of other pods in the sea that’ll better suit your headspace.
What it is: “A guide to being a person that fits in your pocket, Life Kit truly delivers on the promise of its wide-sweeping name. A rotating host of NPR favorites give you a Swiss Army Knife of life skills and solutions from experts with advice on timely day-to-day issues and questions. Topics run the gamut of existence, and there are even specialized feeds for parenting, health, and money.” [From our Best Podcasts for Your 2021 New Year’s Resolutions roundup]
How and what it can help you process: Breaking down the biggest hurdles of 2021 into manageably bite-sized yet thoroughly comprehensive solutions.
What it is: “John Moe, host of the popular podcast The Hilarious World of Depression, is once again back to talk about and laugh through our pain. Every week guests talk about both their personal and our collective mental state as a larger culture. Often, these guests are well-known comedians, musicians, and actors like Patton Oswalt, who speak candidly about struggles with the oh-so-common yet still taboo issues of depression, anxiety, grief, mental illness, and trauma. But Moe makes equal room for mental health experts, covering everything from post-COVID PTSD to burnout.” [From our Best Podcasts to Distract and Relax roundups]
How and what it can help you process: It’s hard to feel alone when even your favorite comedians are struggling with your same mental hardships — and they’ve brought experts along to help.
What it is: Psychologist Tara Brach is the Buddhist teacher for intellectually skeptical (yet still curious) meditation students. Rather than just diving straight into the namaste of it all, she begins each weekly meditation with a lesson on the philosophical and (when available) scientific grounding for the practice she guides you through. Each meditation is both specific to a uniquely of-the-moment collective struggle. While we haven’t tried them all, her compilation of pandemic-focused meditations range from rediscovering aliveness to radical acceptance. For more visual learners, Brach’s YouTube channel also has video versions of each podcast.
How and what it can help you process: Intellectually understanding our feelings is an important step in healing. But learning how to sit with how those tough emotions feel in our bodies is another part of the battle.
What it is: Terrible, Thanks for Asking is, “a place for processing trauma and how terrible we’re all doing through individual people’s stories… Author and self-described notable widow Nora McInerny hosts a weekly interview podcast talking through different guests’ pain, life trauma, and mental health struggles. It’s a podcast that isn’t afraid to sit with the feeling of not being OK and that’s oddly comforting — especially now.” [From our Best Feminist Podcasts roundup]
How and what it can help you process: You know that friend you call when you feel like utter shit and you can count on them to go, “same — wanna come over and cry about it?” This is that, but in podcast form.
What it is: “There is, of course, that famous idiom about how those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Throughline looks to correct any gaps in folks’ knowledge. The NPR show seeks to connect the past with the present. It takes current headlines and parses how we got there by revisiting historical events.” [From our Best History Podcasts roundup]
How and what it can help you process: This episode sparks hope like the eye of the storm in the middle of a hurricane through three gorgeous pieces of immersive audio storytelling.
What it is: This narrative podcast began as a nonfiction narrative audio diary for Bay Area writer Laura Joyce Davis as she, like the rest of us, wrestled with what it meant to “shelter in place” when nothing felt safe or in her control. Since then, it’s evolved and expanded alongside our collective pandemic experience, becoming a self-described “virtual home” for others to tell their own stories too, both through audio memoirs and interviews.
How and what it can help you process: Season 3 is all about reclaiming what home means to us now, with the show’s overall approach being grounded in the concept of using creativity as a way to process pandemic trauma.
What it is: “The Cut is a powerhouse of women’s voices tackling a wide range of subjects, whether pop culture, the internet, style, sex, relationships, or politics. Hosted by Avery Trufelman, each episode follows a fascinating line of inquiry that only sparks more curiosity and even bigger questions than you started out with.” [From our Best Feminist Podcasts roundup]
How and what it can help you process: Though its perspective is distinctly more cosmopolitan than others on this list, The Cut offers an intimate experience of working through the complex emotions of how that lifestyle has changed over the past two years.
What it is: “How’s Work extends sex and relationship therapist Esther Perel’s expertise into the workplace. There are endless struggles embedded into the promise of work-life balance, where relationship dynamics should stay professional but are often no less emotionally and socially complex than the personal. From couples who work together to colleagues in relationship-centric fields, work can demand as much therapeutic labor as your home life.” [From our Best Podcasts for Your 2021 New Year’s Resolutions roundup]
How and what it can help you process: While this episode is about helping a newsroom of journalists cope with the collective trauma of not being able to turn away from the horror of current events, it bears lessons for all of us who’ve been forced to bear witness. If this one doesn’t resonate with you, though, check out Season 2’s “If I Quit What Will People Say?” That episode tackles the toll working in 2021 has had on our personal relationships.
What it is: “The unparalleled reporting of Axios’ Jonathan Swan (best known on the web for his highly memed Trump interview focusing on his COVID-19 response)… dissects the final days of the Trump administration with incredible in-the-room-where-it-happened details on the most stunning behind-the-scenes moments with the former president leading up to the Capitol insurrection. While the reporting requires some skepticism and leaps of faith in trusting anonymous sources, both Swan and Axios’ reputability speak for themselves.” [From our Best New Podcasts of 2021 roundup]
How and what it can help you process: Bringing clarity to the lingering questions of how the Capitol riot happened, from inside the Trump administration.
What it is: “Black women are one of the most underserved demographics in American society, especially when it comes to medical care. That’s why host and licensed psychologist Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s Therapy for Black Girls is so vital. Dr. Harden Bradford, who has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, provides informal therapy sessions on a wide spectrum of mental health issues and strategies for everything from processing communal grief to finding agency through pleasure. Episodes are structured around interviews with an expert and then a listener advice segment. Dr. Harden Bradford is careful to start with a disclaimer that the podcast is no substitute for actual one-on-one therapy, offering resources for how to find one on the Therapy for Black Girls website.” [From our Best Feminist Podcasts roundup]
How and what it can help you process: Black women deserve their own space for coping with the specific intersections of misogynoir‘s traumas.
What it is: “The American experiment, often repackaged as the American dream, is one of the biggest sources of miseducation in our country. In this WNYC Studios and Atlantic collaboration, host Julia Longoria applies the ideals of America’s past that were held to be self-evident, then measures them up against our current reality. Bringing the high ideals of this country’s founding to everyday experiences, The Experiment can even find lessons in trash reality TV shows like 90 Day Fiance.” [From our Best Educational Podcasts roundup]
How and what it can help you process: The pandemic is forcing many Americans to reckon with the unique traumas of living in this country, and this podcast unpacks not only their origins in our history but also how its ramifications plague us to this day.
What it is: The Peabody award-winning Latino USA, hosted by legendary journalist Maria Hinojosa, dives deep into the stories impacting the Latin American diaspora in all its multiplicities. Through rigorous reporting on the news and experiences too often overlooked by other American media organizations, it gets at the beating heart of a range of topics relevant to many Latin American communities, from human experiences to politics to art and history.
How and what it can help you process: As a prominent Latina congresswoman, AOC is both the loudest voice against and greatest target of the singular traumas experienced by Latinas in America. In this vulnerable interview months after her close brush with Capitol rioters calling for her execution, Ocasio-Cortez speaks to how she’s recovering post-Trump by breaking free from Latin community stigmas and speaking up about her mental health struggles.
What it is: Glennon Doyle experienced the rare pandemic glow up, when her memoir Untamed launched in Spring 2020 and resonated with countless others struggling through the crisis. This podcast, co-hosted with sister Amanda Doyle and often other spectacular guests like Simone Biles, was born out of the prevailing mantra that readers gravitated to most: the insistence that We Can Do Hard Things. It’s the kind of motivational podcast that rolls its eyes at the cheesy toxic positivity of other motivational podcasts, with frank, honest, practical, conversational, no-bullshit advice about how to trust yourself to get through the stuff we thought would break us.
How and what it can help you process: If you’re on the market for casual yet thoughtful pep talks — especially related to addiction, parenting, and lady stuff — with Cool Aunt energy, then We Can Do Hard Things is the right one for you.
What it is: “Despite the ominous promise to ‘never forget,’ it’s hard to remember exactly how much 9/11 changed the U.S. That’s what Pineapple Street Studios’ 9/12 is all about, as host Dan Taberski examines all the new realities people found themselves in after the attacks. From The Onion’s struggle to recalibrate what humor meant post-9/11 to the long-lasting explosion of Islamophobia that traumatized so many in America, there are plenty of things we need to remember in this 20th anniversary year of 9/11. But what matters more than anything is rethinking and re-processing the nationalistic narratives we were fed for decades.” [From our Best New Podcasts of 2021 roundup]
How and what it can help you process: Anniversaries carry a lot of psychological weight in the grieving process. Twenty years later, it’s time we faced the full true scope of what we lost on 9/11, both collectively and individually.
What it is: Hosted by Rogé Karma while Ezra Klein is away on sabbatical, this interview with author Sarah Jafee tackles a uniquely millennial and Gen Z facet of 2021’s Great Resignation. Generations of young people were taught to strive to do what they love no matter the personal cost, which Jafee argues only primed us to have our labor abused and exploited by a capitalist system that only cares about turning your passion into their profit.
How and what it can help you process: Free yourself of the lie that’s trapped generations of young folks into believing the toxic work culture that 2021’s Great Resignation now rejects.
What it is: Nobody likes to think about death. But after 2020, a lot of us really need to talk about it. Yet talking about death doesn’t need to be a gruesome or drab affair, either. Each week, Close to Death gives a different comedian, reporter, or writer the opportunity to explore an aspect of death that compels them. From trying to learn how to write your own perfect obituary, to meeting a witch who claims to commune with the deceased, or the ins-and-outs of a human compost farm, each episode’s journey is a rollercoaster of hilarity and vulnerability, pragmatism and hope. It’s the perfect podcast to help shift discussions of death away from the unmentionable and into the normal.” [From our Best New Podcasts of 2021 roundup]
How and what it can help you process: When you look at mortality from a multiplicity of different perspectives and new angles, it feels a lot less scary and a lot less lonely. This one is best for folks who prefer to cope with trauma by armoring themselves with knowledge and humor.
What it is: “As the title suggests, this WNYC podcast centers around openly talking about the most private parts of our lives. Host Anna Sale is a calming voice who dives into the most personal (often difficult) moments of a person’s life with incredible compassion and delicacy.” [From our Best Sex, Dating, and Erotica Podcasts roundup]
How and what it can help you process: If two years of a pandemic taught us anything, it’s that no struggle is too taboo for us to work through together. That’s why Anna Sale’s intimate interviews felt more essential than ever, particularly when it comes to coping with the psychological and emotional baggage that makes many of us avoid our finances.
What it is: The Five Stages of Grief, created from the work of Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, is one of the most well-known yet misunderstood concepts to come out of psychology. NPR host Rachael Cusick came face to face with both its salience and limitations as a kid while grieving her mother. As an adult, she set out to understand the truth of how we came to pigeonhole the tumultuously uncontrollable and individual experience of grief into five neat one-size-fits-all categories. By going back to the source of Kübler-Ross’ work, though, she discovers something incredible: The stages were never meant to be applied to the living, but instead described the process of dying. At a time when our collective grief has started to feel like a slow death in itself, it’s a story that couldn’t feel more salient to 2021.
How and what it can help you process: If 2020 was our year in grief, then 2021 has been our year in violently vacillating between its five (or more) stages. If you’ve felt out of sync with how you’re “supposed” to feel while coping with pandemic losses, then this one’s for you.
What it is: “QAnon isn’t just devastating our democracy or people vulnerable to the conspiracy. It’s leading a lot of loved ones to experience grief for family members who are still alive but ostensibly dead to them. Interviews with those folks bring the human cost of QAnon into sharp relief.” [From our Best Podcasts on Disinformation and Conspiracy Theories roundup]
How and what it can help you process: American democracy survived the Capitol riot, but many relationships with loved ones who were sympathetic to it did not. This heartbreaking episode offers no solutions to that loss, but a deep catharsis in knowing it’s a shared pain.
What it is: “Krista Tippett wants to get to the bottom of everything human, from the spiritual to the scientific. Every week she interviews a new person who can speak to vastly different aspects of life’s biggest questions. The podcast and interview style Is best suited to people who enjoy something conversational rather than a crafted narrative.” [From our Best Podcasts to Fall Asleep To roundup]
How and what it can help you process: No one is better at getting to the heart of existing like Tippett, who always manages to find the beauty in the struggle without sugar-coating its harsh realities.
What it is: “You might think you’ve tired of hearing about global pandemics in 2021, but you need to give this five-part series from one of our favorite true crime podcasts of all time a try. Launched over Last Podcast on the Left’s history-themed summer, their heavily researched yet endlessly entertaining deep dive into the Black Death shows just how much we haven’t changed in our collective response to mass death from disease. There’s a lot of pertinent lessons to be learned from the most catastrophic plague in human history. While some might find the humor at the core of this show jarring, the approach can make those lessons easier to swallow, as the hosts trace the plague’s seemingly unstoppable tear across the world over centuries, upending society while claiming millions of lives.” [From our Best New Podcasts of 2021 roundup]
How and what it can help you process: Sometimes the only way to process a global pandemic is to stare the beast in its ugly, diseased, monstrous face — and laugh about it from the comfortable distance of history.
What it is: Maybe it’s year two of the pandemic, maybe it’s getting the new label of “geriatric millennials,” maybe it’s the Gen Z TikTok bullying, maybe it’s being the poorest generation in recent American history — but millennials went through it in 2021. In this gut-wrenching personal essay tackling religious trauma, queerness, Blackness, and generational despair, Ngofeen Mputubwele captures the singular grief that’s now hitting millennials like a freight train. After asking five peers from different walks of life the simple question of why they feel so hopeless, Mputubwele somehow manages to find beauty beneath our rotting souls (and youth). And that’s just so wonderfully millennial.
How and what it can help you process: Millennials got the raw end of almost every deal that’s been struck throughout our lifetimes. But this reflection on the end of our collective youth also celebrates the resilience of a generation that needed to learn how to parent themselves through being the first to grow up in the internet age (and multiple financial and political crises).
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET, or email [email protected] You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.