13 Reasons Why Music is Good for your Mental Health - Part 1

May 28, 2020

13 Reasons Why Music is Good for your Mental Health - Part 1

Netflix’s controversial teen suicide drama, “13 Reasons Why”, has been criticized  by many because it has failed to talk about mental illness directly or present viable solutions.

The obvious first line of defense when experiencing a serious mental health crisis is to confide in someone you trust to assist in seeking help from a qualified professional. Secrecy is never a good idea so having relationships in place where someone struggling feels free to confide without shame, judgement or repercussion is priceless. But barring a crisis, the many benefits of music are quickly gaining scientific ground as a powerful tool to cultivate the well being of one’s mental health, both as a preventative measure and as a means of rehabilitation.

Americans are reporting significant and sustained increases in symptoms of depression and anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic and those with existing mental health issues are experiencing an increase of symptoms. I, for one, find that my wireless headphones are my new best friend and listening to music as I go about my days in isolation has helped sustain my mood.

The use of music to promote positive psychological states has been a universal human impulse throughout recorded history. So what have we learned about the power of music to affect our mental and therefore physical health (or vice versa)? This is meant to be a short synopsis of the areas discussed…. we will cover each of these in more depth in upcoming blogs.

Music Can Reduce Stress

Playing a musical instrument can reverse stress at the molecular level, according to studies conducted by Loma Linda University School of Medicine and Applied Biosystems.

Listening to music has been studied as a method for combating the rapidly increasing stress levels of adolescents. Interestingly enough, results of a 2019 study showed that “listening to music before a stressor resulted in significantly lower stress levels than listening to music after a stressor” revealing that the preventive effect of listening to music prior to the stressor was more effective than the remedial effect that followed after the stressor. So from these results, the adage "the best defense is a good offense rings true." 

Listening to music or playing a musical instrument can have an enormously relaxing effect on our minds and bodies. Be proactive in combatting stress by keeping your favorite music playing or on-hand whenever possible! You can literally wake up to music and listen as you prepare to meet your day, during your commute to work (or as more common these days, while you work from home), during stressful activities such as bill paying, while you clean, cook or eat. And, of course, playing or listening to music in the evenings helps to unwind and prepare for sleep.

Music Can Decrease Anxiety/Agitation

A 2019 Penn Medicine study found music to be a viable alternative to intravenous sedative in reducing anxiety before anesthesia procedures with none of the potential risk of side effects. You can’t ask for better proof than reducing anxiety while lying on a gurney awaiting surgery!

The song used in the study, “Weightless” by Marconi Union, was composed in collaboration with sound therapists. Its careful arrangement helps slow a listener's heart rate, reduce blood pressure and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In a subsequent study by  Mindlab International to identify relaxing music, Dr. David Lewis-Hodgson reported that “Weightless” was #1, resulting in a striking 65 percent reduction in participants' overall anxiety, and a 35 percent reduction in their usual physiological resting rates.

Here is a Spotify playlist of the top ten songs identified by Mindlab International. Check them out to see how your body reacts.

Music Can Improve Cognitive Performance

Playing a musical instrument throughout life is associated with a lower risk of developing dementia. The greatest benefits are derived when one plays an instrument throughout their lives but were still encouraging when starting musical training in later life. And while playing an instrument offers the highest level of neuroprotection, there is evidence that just listening to music can help maintain cognitive function.

In a randomized clinical trial, adults with subjective cognitive impairment who listened to 12 minutes of music every day for 12 weeks showed a decrease in a cellular biomarker of aging in the blood, as well as improvements in memory, mood, sleep, and executive cognitive function. 

Recent research in 2019 continues to prove that music is a safe, inexpensive way to produce significant effect on cognition in older adults with dementia. The late and much missed Oliver Saks, neurologist and author, talks eloquently about the power of music and its effect on cognition in Alzheimers.

Music Can Improve Your Mood

We all know that music can illicit strong emotion. Whether you’re playing it or passively listening, countless studies have reached the same conclusion that happy upbeat music can lift your spirits and have a positive effect on your well being. What’s not as well understood is why people also enjoy listening to sad music. In the case of people with major depressive disorder, it would seem counter-intuitive but they report that the strong appeal of sad music is related to its less-energetic and therefore more calming effect. Others experiencing depression feel less alone when listening to sad lyrics because they realize that they are not the only ones experiencing these feelings.

That being said, because music is powerful and adolescents experiencing a serious depression are a vulnerable population, McFerran & Saarikallio advise against assuming that everyone has the self-awareness to discern what music is in their best interest, and emphasize that “adopting a conscious and intentional approach to musicking is especially important for at-risk youth”.

It is wise to be proactive by making medicinal playlists to use “as needed” when you are experiencing good mental health rather than making those decisions when your judgment might be impaired. Like any other medicine, it depends on the right remedy to create the desired effect.

Music Might Help You Eat Less and Healthier

How you feel about yourself has a direct bearing on your mental health. If you wanting to constrict your calorie intake, this study published in 2019 offers interesting information to be aware of. Researchers from the University of South Florida Muma College of Business conducted the first study of the effect of ambient music volume on food choices. Whether at restaurants or grocery stores, it was found that customers exposed to louder music made less healthy choices than those who listened to quieter music. As one example: participants of the study listening to loud music chose to have the chocolate cake for desert compared to 14% of those listening to quiet music.

It is interesting to note that those who listened to no music made unhealthy choices 50% of the time more similar to the loud music group leading researchers to believe that quiet classical music helped healthy decision making regarding food by inducing a relaxation effect.

So, if you’re looking to improve your subconscious food choices, avoid establishments with loud music or pack your own playlist with a set of earbuds.

Music Can Help Manage Pain

Bob Marley’s favorite quote “One good thing about music, when it hits you you feel no pain” was eerily prophetic as medical science is now proving. The scientific term is “music induced analgesia”. With an opioid crisis in full bloom, any reduction in the need for addictive pain relievers would be a service to humanity and music holds strong promise in this area.

Three talks during a workshop at the 2018 World Congress on Pain 9 discussed improved brain health, and music’s potential as a treatment for complex conditions such as chronic pain.

Dr. Catherine Bushnell, Scientific Director, NCCIH/NIH intramural research program, presented the state of the science research on the neural circuits and brain mechanisms engaged in pain perception and treatment

Dr. Robert Zatorre, behavioral and cognitive neuroscientist at McGill University, discussed our current understanding of brain mechanisms involved in music perception and production, with an emphasis on music reward processing and potential overlap with the neural mechanisms of pain perception.

Dr. Joke Bradt, Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Arts Therapies at Drexel University, described recent clinical research related to various forms of music therapy and their potential mechanisms of action for chronic pain management.

Many studies have shown that the distraction pleasant music provides relieves perception of pain strength. And music also affects emotional states which can alter how unpleasant the pain is perceived to be.

The workshop revealed that music activates the same reward centers in the brain that food, sex, and pain-relieving medications do. This knowledge could be used to help the millions of people throughout the world living with chronic pain

Music Can Decrease Feelings of Isolation / Increase social connection

We are social creatures literally wired for connection. So it is no surprise that those of us that are isolated and deprived of it, for whatever reason, can easily develop mental health issues. This is a big part of why people are struggling with mental health issues during the “shelter at home” social distancing requirements necessitated by the Covid19 pandemic.

A  2018 study of loneliness and its association with physical and mental health concluded, “Groups experiencing loneliness and/or isolation were more likely to report poorer physical and mental health even after adjusting for socio-demographic differences” 

It is hard to think of a more challenging proving ground than a 2018 study undertaken in a camp in northern Greece where 11-18 ear old youth from Iraq and Syria had been living for up to a year.  Their findings indicated that “activities involving music practice can impact positively on young people’s wellbeing, enabling the development of emotional expression, improved social relations, self-knowledge and positive self-identification, and a sense of agency.” It went on to conclude that “The positive impacts of music practice noted here suggest it has the potential to be a promising health promotion approach for young refugees, by helping to develop supportive environments through which community action can be strengthened and personal skills developed.” A compelling testament for the power of music to establish a sense of community under the most adverse conditions.

Another testament is Ukueleles for Peace, a long-standing international organization whose aim is to unite Jewish and Muslim children in a spirit of co-operation and peace through the medium of music.

Continue to Part 2

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