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How Can Music Therapy Improve Your Mental Health?

Steven Losardo, LMFT

Music Therapy and Its Intersections With Wellness

When you hear the words ‘music therapy’ what comes to mind? You may have tons of questions, such as, “does music therapy actually work?” or “what exactly IS music therapy?”

One thing is for certain: music touches the soul in ways words simply can’t.  

This soul connection is what makes music therapy so incredibly powerful for all people (Tams, 2021). As a result, music therapy can help every person, of every race, age, gender, and ethnicity (Tams, 2021). Its universal healing powers are endless.  If this has piqued your interest, don’t go anywhere. In this article, we’ll discuss a few ways in which music therapy intersects with wellness.

But first, in order to understand just how music therapy and wellness go hand in hand, it’s important to talk a bit more about it. Music therapy is a clinical form of treatment used for both physical and mental illnesses (Stack & Harris, 2022).  Activities such as singing, composing music, listening, or playing an instrument are used to accomplish an individual patient’s goals (Stack & Harris, 2022).  Not only is music therapy beneficial for those struggling with depression or anxiety, but there have also been clinically documented cases (Ulbricht, 2013). Cases in which patients have autism, dementia, and even cancer have greatly improved their quality of life through music (Stack & Harris, 2022). Next, we will review five ways therapy intersects with wellness. 

Music Therapy Aids In Changing The Brain 

At the most fundamental level, music therapy changes our brains (Stack & Harris, 2022). Our brains are plastic. No, I don’t mean they’re made of plastic. Plasticity in the brain otherwise referred to as ‘neuroplasticity’ refers to the brain’s ability to “re-wire” itself when presented with new information (Stack & Harris, 2022). As children, our brains are constantly making connections and reorganizing themselves. This neuroplasticity isn’t limited to our childhoods, though (Stack & Harris, 2022).  Well into our adulthood, our brains have the ability to make new connections. This is particularly important when trying to unlearn damaging or toxic behaviors. When we present our minds with new, healthy methods of coping, we quite literally change our brains.  

Stack and Harris (2022) highlight that music therapy activates cognitive, motor, and speech centers in the brain, strengthening areas such as memory, spatial timing, and executive functioning. This stimulation in turn creates a positive influence on our quality of life and overall wellness. When our brains are strengthened, we feel sharper and alert. This feeling of clarity is powerful in decision-making, and mood management. 

Music Therapy Enables The Release Of Endorphins

In a nutshell, endorphins are the brain’s “happy hormones.” Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin give us a euphoric feeling, while simultaneously calming anxiety, and fighting off the negative effects of stress  (Tams, 2021). Endorphins have amazing effects on our physical health as well. Not only do these hormones stabilize our immune system, but they also act as ‘pain blockers’ quite literally stopping pain receptors from transmitting messages of discomfort to the rest of the body. Listening to, or creating music, triggers the release of these endorphins (Tams, 2021).  

Through music therapy, our brains become flooded with these happy hormones, which in turn improve memory, quicken physical healing, and give us a general sense of happiness and contentment  (Tams, 2021). 

Music Therapy Reduces Stress Levels

For how incredibly common stress is, you may be surprised when I tell you the long list of negative side effects that can come with chronically feeling overwhelmed  (Tams, 2021).  Headaches, digestive issues, memory impairment, high blood pressure, asthma, skin conditions, type 2 diabetes, diminished immune system, arthritis, muscle tension, chest pain, nausea, and insomnia are just a few side effects that come with stress (Ulbricht, 2013).

Thankfully, music therapy can help by reducing the stress hormone ‘cortisol’. When levels of cortisol decline, levels of wellness increase. Practices such as playing an instrument, singing along, or engaging in guided imagery with music have all been shown to reduce stress, blood pressure, and cortisol levels (Ulbricht, 2013). 

Music Therapy Improves Self Esteem

Low self-esteem can do much more damage on the inside than you may think. Anxiety, stress, loneliness, and depression can all stem from feeling negative about yourself (Tams, 2020; Ulbricht, 2013). In addition, low self-esteem can cause missed opportunities at work, impair academic performance, cause difficulties in relationships, and increase a person’s risk of drug or alcohol abuse (Tams, 2020; Ulbricht, 2013).

Music therapy works with patients to heal their inner self-talk. Learning to play a new instrument can boost self-confidence through the process of accomplishing goals.  In addition, music therapy allows patients to improve their self-expression, leading to self-awareness. When we become more self-aware, we become more in touch with the best version of ourselves. Through this, our self-esteem and confidence bloom.

Music Therapy Promotes Healthier Sleep

Kavurmaci et. al (2020) note that when we sleep poorly, we feel poorly. Further, a lack of healthy, adequate sleep can leave us feeling irritable, emotional, and exhausted in the short term. Long-term consequences such as a compromised immune system, heart disease, early-onset dementia, and depression also threaten our overall wellness. 

Music can be broken into two categories: sedative – distinct with a smooth melody, slow tempo, and soft volume, and rhythmic – categorized by the opposite (Tams, 2020; Ulbricht, 2013).  Sedative music therapy has a direct positive impact on sleep quality by regulating the nervous system and reducing levels of cortisol (Stack & Harris, 2022).  When our nervous systems are calm, our breathing becomes regulated, our heart rates slow and our blood pressure decreases to healthy sleep-inducing levels (Stack & Harris, 2022; Kavurmaci et. al, 2020).  

Music therapy is much more than listening to a song. It’s much more than sitting in a circle playing an instrument. Music therapy has the ability to change our bodies at a fundamental level. Not only does music therapy have an extensive track record in healing chronic pain patients, mental health diagnoses, and insomniacs, music has proven time and time again that it has the ability to improve our quality of life. Through a total brain workout, music can heal both your physical and mental pain, boost your self-confidence, manage high levels of stress, and promote healthier sleeping patterns. Finally, you do not need to have any musical background to engage in music therapy. If you’re looking for ways to enhance wellness in your life, music therapy just may be your answer.

Get in touch with Symmetry Counseling today to get paired with a Chicago counselor, and discover how music therapy can help you along in your mental health journey.

References

Kavurmaci, M., Dayapoğlu, K., Tan, M. (2020). Effect of music therapy on sleep quality. 

Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31221932/. On May 4, 2022. 

Stack, C. and Harris, G. (2022). Neurologic music therapy in neurorehabilitation. Retrieved from

https://www.biausa.org/public-affairs/media/neurologic-music-therapy-in

neurorehabilitation on May 4, 2022. 

Tams, L. (2021) The role of music in stress management.  Retrieved from

 https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/the_role_of_music_in_stress_management on May 4,

Ulbricht, C. (2013). Music therapy for health and wellness. Retrieved from

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/natural-standard/201306/music-therapy

health-and-wellness on May 4, 2022.

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