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Today, one in five Americans lives with a mental health disorder in any given year. Over the full course of lifetime, nearly 50% of us will receive a mental health diagnosis. While, often those problems are treatable, for many others, treatment is about managing symptoms to reduce them rather than to make them go away. However, the vast majority of mental illness diagnoses are about treatable illnesses including non-chronic depression, anxiety, and trauma. And, for both, music is more and more often used in therapeutic settings, as a means to help patients connect with emotions and themselves.
That can be delivered as music therapy, a complementary therapy to behavioral therapy, or in assignments – helping individuals to express themselves through music. In either case, learning to play instruments, learning music, dance, listening to music, selecting music, and sharing music can be powerful tools as part of therapy, mental health treatment, and mental health maintenance.
Music can be used to regulate the affect of events on how you feel. Here, individuals are encouraged to create positive playlists or to pick songs that specifically make them feel good. Then, when something happens, you can impact mood and impact on your mood with that music.
Studies during the Covid-19 lockdowns showed that people who deliberately exposed themselves to positive music when experiencing stress or negative events were able to reduce stress and negative experience of that event. In fact, when similar tests were performed before and after adding music, people adding music always scored better for positivity.
Here, music can be part of both “positive reframing” and “active coping”, in which someone experiencing stress or a potentially negative event works to reframe that event in a positive light, and in which that person attempts to actively improve mood and build coping as the event happens.
While this strategy does not fix mental illness, it can help you to improve coping and can reduce the severity of stress or anxiety in specific situations.
Music therapy includes a broad range of complementary therapies intended to add to behavioral or talking therapy and counseling. Here, they do not replace other forms of therapy. However, they do complement that therapy and can help you to achieve goals set in behavioral therapy. In addition, there are dozens of different types of music therapy, mapped to different kinds of primary therapy. For example, Cognitive Behavioral Music Therapy, Acceptance and Motivation Music Therapy, Community Music Therapy, Analytical Music Therapy, etc.
Cognitive Behavioral Music Therapy – Cognitive Behavioral Music Therapy combines the principles of CBT with music, with a structured approach to treatment. Often, many different approaches to music are included, including listening, playing, dancing, singing, and sharing.
Analytical Music Therapy – Analytical music therapy is used to help people to share about emotions and trauma through playing, singing, or using music to share. This can help people with mental health problems to better voice how they feel, even when they aren’t capable of realizing it themselves.
In addition, music therapy can include a large number of approaches. For example, you may:
Some types of music therapy can include all of these. Others may include only one approach. Most importantly, music therapy normally chooses approaches that help the individual to tackle their own personal problems. If you struggle with anxiety, dancing, singing, sharing, and being in a group can help you to overcome some of those anxieties. On the other hand, if you need structure, practicing and learning a musical instrument can help you to build that discipline and structure. And, music and dance can be freeing, allowing you to share emotions you couldn’t in a quiet room.
Music therapy does not replace behavioral therapy. In most cases, it is not intended to help you change your behavior or yourself. Instead, it’s intended to help you get in touch with yourself and your emotions, to create structure, and to supplement your primary therapy. In other cases, specific kinds of music therapy may be intended for more primary use.
However, most studies show that music therapy can start to have a positive impact on mood, the impact of stress events, and on emotional sharing in other forms of therapy. However, large studies are rare, and most do not include long-term follow-ups. This means that music therapy may help while you’re doing it and may have reduced impacts later. At the same time, music therapy may help you to reach breakthroughs, to learn how to manage and regulate your emotions and to improve your mood when negative things do happen.
So, music therapy isn’t a cure to mental health disorders. It can help you to regulate emotions, find your emotions, and to share them. However, the structure of your music therapy and what other treatment you’re receiving at the same time will have a large impact on that as well.
If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, it’s important to get help. Often, that help starts out with talking to your doctor, discussing symptoms, and asking what next steps you can take. Even having those conversations can give you the direction you need to seek professional help – whether a personal therapist, specific treatment for a mental health diagnosis, or ongoing support from complementary therapies or support groups.
Eventually, it’s important to talk to a professional to get insight into how you’re doing, what kind of help you might benefit from, and why. Music will very often fit into that, as part of your treatment plan, as part of your maintenance plan, and as part of your ongoing recovery. However, other forms of therapy such as behavioral therapy and counseling may be more important to help you identify and treat problems getting in the way of your life or quality of life.
If you or a loved one is seeking help for alcohol or other substance abuse, contact us at Stairway Resource Center today. At Stairway Resource Center we provide a 60 to 90-day outpatient program that takes place in an engaging and supportive community setting. We offer dual diagnosis treatment and daily group and individual therapy for our clients, in addition to fun community-based events and activities.
Kristen Nelson, MD is double board certified in General Psychiatry and Addiction Psychiatry. She completed her psychiatry residency at Eastern Virginia Medical School and pursued an addiction psychiatry fellowship with UCLA. She has extensive training at Veteran Administration hospitals. Areas of expertise are post-traumatic stress disorder, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and psychopharmacology.