The roots of modern music therapy stretch back to World War II. Doctors treating a particular kind of stress, what was then called “shell shock,” discovered that playing music made soldiers more cooperative and less confrontational during treatment. Today, doctors are finding that making music is just as effective as listening to music. Singing, for instance, is a highly effective way of easing tension, and many music therapists use singing and chanting as a way to encourage patients to learn deep breathing techniques that help eliminate the effects of acute stress.
The same genetic coding that enabled our ancestors to hunt and kill their food, live in harsh environments, and survive against various threats of the primitive world still influences the human body today. When faced with an unpleasant or stressful situation, changes in our bodies occur that trigger the “fight or flight” response used as a defense mechanism by early humans. However, these days, the “fight or flight” reflex is exhibited not only in life and death situations, but as a response to everyday situations in our busy world.
We’re all familiar with common causes of stress: getting stuck in traffic, a family dispute, or the threat of unemployment. Similarly, we’re also familiar with the symptoms of stress: increased heart rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing, muscle tension, butterflies in the stomach, and shaking and sweating. Whether the situation is dire or not, our body responds to an immediate stressor the same way it has always responded to external threats. In many cases, the effects of stress fade away as the crisis resolves itself. This short-term stress reaction is often called acute stress.
Learning to cope
Chronic stress results from constant repetition of the “fight or flight” stress response. It is the result of persistent worrying over common stressors, long-lasting personal conflicts, or emotions such as grief. Long-term stress response in turn leads to chronic stress symptoms. Insomnia, headaches, and nausea are some immediately recognized symptoms, but sufferers of chronic stress also have a higher risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, or stroke. Stress can also lead to depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, and immune system deficiencies.
“But the key issue of stress is that you have to perceive a potential stressor as stressful,” explains Dr. Bruce Rabin, medical director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Healthy Lifestyles Program. If you simply don’t care about the threat of downsizing or traffic jams on your commute, Rabin says you won’t be stressed by problems that might affect other people. We all know people who have a happy-go-lucky attitude toward life’s ups and downs, but most of us have to learn how to cope with stressors to avoid long-term health issues that arise from chronic stress.
“People are well aware of stress in their lives, but often they don’t cope with it very well,” explains Rabin. “Coming home from work, lying on the couch, watching TV, and eating junk food are poor strategies for our children to learn from.” Luckily, Rabin says there are many healthy activities that reduce the impact of stress, both physically and mentally. Making music is one of these. “People who play music as a hobby are using what I call ‘buffering skills’ that protect against the effects of stress,” he says. “Musicians have fun, and when they play they are appreciated. Then there are the positive effects of social interaction, like volunteering in the community.”
Music for Health
Rabin is one of a growing number of physicians turning to music therapy, both listening to music and making it, as a way to positively impact physical and psychological health. Music therapy has proven particularly effective at calming highly stressed patients in hospitals, either people suffering from complicated, life-threatening illnesses such as cancer or family members whose worrying becomes a side-effect of these diseases.
Scientists for years have been researching the positive effects of music on our bodies. It is now well established that music releases endorphins into the body, natural opiates that relax us. But modern researchers are finding that music has more complex physical benefits than that. One of these researchers is Dr. Deforia Lane, director of music therapy at the University Hospitals of Cleveland. Lane uses music therapy to treat highly stressed, anxious cancer and surgical patients. She has found music helps them in many ways. For instance, because music can lower a stressed patient’s heart rate, she says less anesthesia is needed during operations. Music, Lane finds, also acts as a form of “self-hypnosis,” enabling stressed patients to calm down and even sleep better. Music even affects us on a cellular level, Lane observes, increasing the amounts the enzyme salivary IGA (secretory immunoglobulin A), which is found in our mouths and acts as a natural disinfectant.
A Joyful Experience
While Lane’s work is with a particular population suffering from acute stress, Rabin points out that music therapy can be beneficial to a general population suffering from chronic stress. Rabin’s first article of advice for recreational music makers is to make sure your hobby remains a light-hearted activity. “Your hobby should not become a stressor in itself. It should be relaxing. When it is there’s no question it’s a calming activity: it lowers the heart rate, lowers stress hormones, and lowers blood pressure,” he says.
Rabin’s community outreach work includes advice on how to replace harmful, self-medicating stress reduction techniques, such as overeating, drinking, and smoking, with positive stress-buffering techniques. In fact, Rabin says almost all of his recommended buffering techniques can be achieved by making music in a relaxed, nonpressured, enjoyable, and social atmosphere. One technique Rabin suggests is to create and maintain a friendly social network of people whom you can rely on to help you through stressful times. One way to do this is to make music with others, because the camaraderie that develops in a community band, drum circle, or group keyboard program is precisely the kind that can offer support when you are troubled.
Making music, especially setting and achieving musical goals such as learning a new song or a new instrument, can increase self-esteem and provide opportunities for joy and laughter, two more of Rabin’s buffering techniques. Another technique is to maintain physical health, especially as you age. All instruments require some form of physical exertion, whether it’s the deep breathing required to play tuba or the muscle strength required to play drums. Lastly, Rabin exhorts stress sufferers to develop a spiritual belief system that can relax you when things seem out of control. For Rabin, one of music’s great strengths is its ability to nurture the spiritual side of our lives. “If you enjoy playing music, it will become calming and joyful experience for you,” he says.