The effects of music on mental health – Music to my ears.

I love, love, LOVE music. From the minute my work alarm wakes me up blasting “Stack it up” by Liam Payne.  Until the minute I get into bed there’s not much time in between that I’m not playing music.  A playlist when I’m happy, a playlist when I’m sad. A playlist when I’m in love, a playlist when I’m falling apart. Fuck Netflix, fuck Disney+… My Spotify subscription is the one thing I’d never be able to give up. Every important event in my life, good or bad I can attach a song to. I have fond memories of belting out Tina Turners – Simply the Best, as soon as I could talk. The songs blasting out in the car on the way to the beach in the summer. Or my grandad doing his best impression of Johnny Cash on the weekend. I remember being an angsty teenager and using KaZaa to download the latest Linkin Park Album. Vibing to the Babyshambles and Queens of the Stone Age while passing a joint amongst friends. Singing “Your Sex is On Fire” at the top of my lungs in a nightclub – The glory days. Or under my duvet crying along to Evanescence. You get the idea… music is a huge part of my life. I’ve even started a playlist just for bipolar – I’ll share it soon if anyone is interested.

This isn’t really surprising since some research suggests that music as well as being a source of pleasure also has psychological benefits, relaxing your mind, energizing the body, and even helping to manage pain. Fast-paced rock music that pushes me to carry on exercising or the goosebumps brought on by listening to a strong vocal performance proves that music has the power to impact mood or inspire action. Sometimes just relating to the lyrics and knowing someone else somewhere has felt the same as I do is comforting.  Dancing or singing (definitely when alone – I’m an awful singer, an awful dance too actually) has been known to improve my mood exponentially.  Sometimes when my anxiety is so high that I can’t concentrate, I put a song on loud – usually with fast lyrics and I sing along.  After all, I can’t think if I’m trying to sing lyrics properly. Try it and let me know if it helps! I work in a job thankfully that allows me to listen to music – even if it’s an earphone in one ear. I use listening to music not only to get through the night a little bit quicker but also to signify to other people that I may not want to talk or that my mood is bad.

There’s some scientific research on the way music affects mental health. I’ve read a few articles and journals on the subject for this blog and just for fun. I know right, such a nerd. Intensely pleasant emotional responses to the music show cerebral blood flow changes when monitored by positron emission tomography (PET). It’s a fancy imaging technique that uses radiotracer (a radioactive substance) to visualise changes in metabolic processes.  You may have seen pictures like this before:

Series of coloured sagittal positron emission tomography (PET) scans through the brain.

I don’t know the ins and outs of it (nor do I want to delve any deeper, my brain is already full of shit without more) but it has been used in research into the effects of music on the brain. Anyway, blow flow changes were measured in response to subject-selected music that elicited a highly pleasurable experience.  This accompanied changes in heart rate and respiration. As the intensity was increased the cerebral blood flow increased and decreased in parts of the brain which are thought to be involved in reward/ motivation, emotion, and arousal. These parts of the brain are known to respond to other euphoria-inducing stimuli, such as food, sex, and drugs.  The finding of the study links music with pleasure and reward. So, although music is not imperative for the survival of the human species (I disagree – it definitely is imperative for my survival), it is of significant benefit to physical and mental well-being.

Could that be why music therapy is being used more and more as a treatment for mental health disorders? Using music as a medium for processing emotions, trauma, and grief but also utilising it as a regulating or calming agent too.

There are four major interventions used in music therapy:

👉 1. Lyrical Analysis

Talking therapy is often used to allow a person to speak about topics that they find difficult to discuss. But duh, they’re typical to discuss. So using lyric analysis introduces a more novel and less difficult way to approach and process emotions, thoughts, and experiences. The patient is encouraged to offer insight and offer alternative lyrics using it as a tangible tool to apply to obstacles in their life and treatment.  After all, don’t we all have that one song that we deeply connect with and appreciate?

👉 2. Improv Music Playing

Some find playing an instrument can encourage emotional expression, socialisation, and exploration of conflict, communication, grief, etc.  When playing in a group with other patients can identify the escalation and de-escalation (harder faster drumming, which then becomes slow and softer) and then relate these to feel they may have. Creating an opportunity to discuss feelings with others. That they may not have done otherwise.

👉 3. Active music listening

Music can be used to regulate mood due to its rhythmic and repetitive aspects. It engages a part of the brain known as the neocortex which calms us and reduces impulsivity. Sometimes I will choose music that my mood relates to – Feeling depressed? I’ll stick on a heavy rock song.  Or sometimes we can choose a song that can alter our mood. Feeling depressed? I’ll stick on a fast-paced pop song just to give me the energy to put my clothes on and go to work. In music therapy, the therapist will play music to match the current mood of the person and then slowly shift to a more positive or calming track.

👉 4. Songwriting

Just like I write this blog and post to social media about mental health topics to express myself in a positive way (most of the time). It can be rewarding for someone to create lyrics that reflect their own thoughts and feelings.  They can select instruments and create sounds that also reflect the emotions behind the lyrics. It’s Validating, and can aid in building self-worth.  This intervention can also instill a sense of pride when listening to something they’ve created themselves.

You can find a music therapist using the British Association for Music Therapy’s (BAMT) website here.

A thirty something from down south (Cornwall, UK). People who like me tell me I'm funny, sarcastic and have no filter. People who don't would probably say I'm a bit of a bellend. I'll let you make your own mind up.

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