There is a growing body of evidence that supports what many have always known instinctively. Music can change people's moods and help reduce many of the symptoms of mental illnesses. While that news is probably not shocking to anyone, the degree to which music can affect our moods, and even our bodies, is. What was initially unclear was how strong of an effect music could have on our lives. The results that are coming in point to it being far greater than most had originally predicted.
We have been playing and listening to music for at least thirty-five thousand years1. The first written record of music being used as a form of therapy dates back over three thousand years, to the reign of King Saul2. Using music as a means of therapy is a well-established means of lifting symptoms of depression and anxiety. So, what does modern research have to say about it?
The American Psychological Association published an interview3 several years ago in which neuropsychologist Daniel Levitin, PhD, states, “But the direction that it’s going is that in the last five years, people are increasingly conducting controlled experiments with proper controls and with proper methods…early evidence says that music can alter pain thresholds. It can increase immune system functions. There’s stronger evidence that it can affect mood and heart rate and respiration rate. So, fast stimulating music stimulates the production of adrenaline and other hormones that get your heart racing faster and your pulse increases and blood pressure increases and then soothing, relaxing music has the opposite effect." It doesn’t get more straightforward than that.
Researchers have begun to quantify those effects and see just how powerful of an intervention music can be. The results are astonishing. For example, in a randomized controlled study4 (one of the most powerful tools in clinical research) done to assess the strength music could play in relieving anxieties, it was found that music actually had a more powerful effect than Midazolam (a pre-surgery benzodiazepine). Since anxieties tend to run high before surgery, and there was a way to compare music with a potent medication, that is where the researchers focused. They state, “Relaxing music reduced anxiety to a greater extent than midazolam.” Anxiety scores were significantly better in the music group compared to the benzodiazepine group. This was not only a self-reported assessment; the participant’s heart rates and blood pressure readings were actually lower in the music group. In addition, there were no adverse side effects in the music group. The benzodiazepine group experienced a wide range of unwanted symptoms. “On the basis of these findings we suggest that the use of preoperative relaxing music instead of Midazolam, as well as the involvement of music expertise in the care of surgical patients.”
One study5 wanted to see if there were actual physiological changes in the body while listening to relaxing music. Participants with latex allergies were given a small injection of latex into their skin and, of course, a large red bump appeared. They tried the same test at a later time while the same participants listened to Mozart and they found a significant (30%) reduction in the reaction from the previous test. However, this led to a troubling question. Could listening to Mozart actually suppress the immune system? Obviously, the researchers ran more tests to find the answer. Thankfully, they found that was not the case. The music only suppresses the pathological allergic reactions and not the entire immune system. Of course, no one understands how that can be yet, but they are working to figure it out.
In another study6, that took the opposite route, researchers played upbeat fast tempo music to see how much of an effect it could have on perceived enjoyment during stressful exercise and if it could improve performance. They found that indeed, music did improve the participant’s perceived enjoyment and improved their performance. Music was shown to improve performance to such a significant degree that in another study7 of well-trained athletes the researchers stated that it is the best way known to improve performance, which is legal. Improving perceived enjoyment during stressful times and significantly improving the body’s ability to perform is no small feat. I like the way Bob Marley phrased it in one of his songs when he sang, "One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain."
I often use music during my exercise. I have found that there is often a significant difference in the benefits I receive between when I use music and when I do not. For myself, the combination of music and exercise makes a potent elixir for the symptoms of depression, anxiety and mania.
Below are two examples of the many videos that I have bookmarked so that I can access them quickly when I need them. I understand that music is subjective, and what may be soothing to one may be agitating for another. Some may love them, and some may hate them. The point is that if symptoms creep back up it is easy for me to forget the simplest of things, so I like to be prepared. In addition to having videos bookmarked, I have different playlists saved with titles such as Overcoming Depression, Overcoming Anxiety, Running Off Adrenaline, etc. They have proved to be invaluable to me on many occasions.
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As always, I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click the link to the right and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource and is staffed by wonderful people.
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If I am feeling depressed and need a motivational lift to fight back I often turn to something like this.
If anxiety or racing thoughts have taken over my brain, I turn to something like this.