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How music can help us manage stress



Music can have a powerful influence on our emotions, physiology, psychology and overall state of mind. As we listen to music, it can pump us up, it can quieten us down, and it can help us to escape the stresses of life or handle them better. The application of music as medicine, as a practical and therapeutic aid, is a burgeoning field with new evidence emerging regularly. When we listen to music, it can sometimes be just as a background, or we can engage more fully with the listening process, or we can participate in music-making.


Amongst the many different aspects of their practice, professional music therapists do significant work using music to help people express their emotions or their distress in a safe way. Sharing music with others is another important element, and there is mounting evidence for the benefits of community singing with others.


Whatever music is, it has wonderful effects that musicians and music lovers have always felt, though not always been able to explain.


Music offers many benefits, and its use in stress management and general mental health is now beginning to be studied seriously. Today we have the ability to measure the brain’s reaction and physiological responses to music as never before. MRI scanning enables researchers to see how music lights up neural pathways, and its physiological impact on our heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and internal chemistry can all be measured.


Effects of music as a sedative or to stimulate


A research study in 20131 involved 144 students in undertaking a mental arithmetic test under pressure to purposefully induce a stress response. (Note 1) The students were then assigned to four groups to listen to music. The results revealed that those participants who listened to ‘sedative’ music showed significantly lower tension and anxiety levels than did those who listened to ‘stimulating’ music. The findings further demonstrated that sedative music had effects, whether the music was liked or not, and that personal preference is more important with stimulating music.


This also seems to work the other way round - listening to calming music before getting involved in a stressful situation. A study published in the research journal PLOS ONE2 demonstrated that listening to relaxing classical music prior to having a stress-inducing experience resulted in faster recovery from the stress, as measured by cortisol levels, heart rate and other measures.


Music seems to reduce stress levels, both as preparation before being involved in a stressful situation and as an aid to recovery. But we don’t need to be researchers to discover the benefits of music. We can ourselves become aware of how music affects the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and how it affects our emotional state. When our heart rate and rate of breathing increase it’s the sympathetic system that’s affected, and if both decrease the parasympathetic system is affected.


How we feel emotionally counts as well. If we’re feeling positive - even excited - the sympathetic system will be stimulated, and that can be beneficial. If we’re feeling overly anxious or worried, then stimulation of the sympathetic system can be a problem.

Depending on personal preferences, one person’s exciting music can be a stressful, annoying noise to another person. Music that excites and stimulates can be used to energise us, like preparing for a party by playing some dance tracks, for example. It’s worth reflecting that the stress response actually prepares us for flight or fight, and there are times when we need to use up that energy before calming down. Music can bring emotional and stress relief, perhaps particularly when combined with movement or exercise.


Benefits of singing to reduce stress and enhance wellbeing


Engaging in making music has also been shown to have considerable health benefits, perhaps even more than simply listening to music. Studies have shown that singing, providing this isn’t in a stressful performance situation, lowers stress levels. What’s interesting, however, is that singing has also been shown to boost the immune system, an effect that isn’t produced by passively listening to music.


A 2018 study called “Sing Your Heart Out” 3 explored the benefits of community singing for mental health. It was undertaken with a group of people, some of whom were experiencing mental health issues and some who weren’t. The results showed that engaging in choral workshops improved mood and general wellbeing, promoted feelings of belonging, and enhanced mental health.


If all the evidence attests to the power of music in reducing stress, improving mental health and overall wellbeing, how can we use it more wisely for ourselves and in working with groups and individuals?


The benefits of music for better management of stress


We don’t need to be experts to think about and use music in ways that help us manage our stress levels and general mental health. Here are some ideas, all of which I’ve found beneficial both personally and working with others.


1. Compile your playlist for the conscious application of music. Include music that is calming, music that helps you concentrate and block out unwanted noise, music that energises you, music that brings good times to mind, music to exercise to, music to accompany meditation or contemplation. A lot of people may do this already but without being fully aware of the specific benefits and effect on their positive and negative stress responses. This can be a powerful exercise in developing deeper self-awareness and becoming aware of the impact of music on our heart rate, rate of breathing, emotional state and more.


2. Find a piece of music that works as a background soundscape for you when you’re working alone. A piece that helps you focus and enjoy your work without getting too distracted.


3. Find a piece of music that puts you in a calm, relaxed and confident state, ready to work with others whether you are counselling, coaching or training. In whatever capacity we work when assisting others in relation to stress, it’s essential to be in a calm and confident state ourselves.


4. Think about how you might use music - particularly purposefully relaxing music - when you are working with others. Remember to choose something that will be generally welcomed and appreciated, and remember that preferred music works better. The careful choice of music will be even more important if you work with those experiencing stress. If the situation allows, you can ask the client to choose music that’s relaxing for them.


5. Don’t forget to choose the right kind of music for driving!


Can music be used organisationally to reduce stress and benefit wellbeing?


This is an interesting question for our times. Music is already successfully used in personal and community settings as well as therapeutically. In future, can music be used more widely in organisational settings to benefit wellbeing and reduce stress? There’s a cultural context to this, as some organisations already use music of course. But often this is to create excitement and encourage a positive psychology, with the aim of boosting productivity rather than specifically to help manage stress levels. If you are working with businesses and organisations, perhaps this is a subject to raise with HR and people managers, and as an element that could enhance the effectiveness of counselling and EAP programmes generally?

In an era when stress levels are continuing to rise – the current rate of self-reported work-related stress, depression or anxiety is higher than it was in 2018/194 - much more may be possible if the restorative powers of music are harnessed to reduce stress and benefit wellbeing.


By Nick Woodeson Jan 2023


Notes

1. The Arts in Psychotherapy, Elsevier, 2013/02/03

2. The Effect of Music on the Human Stress Response, PLOS ONE, 2013/05/08





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