If you’re a musician and you’re angry at being told you should “retrain” to do something “useful” while we’re trapped in this pandemic, you have every right to be. As much as academics and politicians look down on the arts (despite consuming them on a daily basis), what they don’t seem to realise is the importance of music to our psychological health. And since our collective mental health has taken a downturn this year, it seems that music has never been more important.
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As part of World Mental Health Day, we want to educate on the health benefits of listening to music. It’s been a part of human culture since the dawn of time, used primarily as a way of bringing people together and inciting revelry and merryment in communal spaces. But now we know that the purposes of music go well beyond that.
Here are a few examples of mental health issues that can be treated with the power of music:
1. Stress – It’s been proven time and time again that listening to music is an extremely effective way of relieving psychological stress and anxiety. It reduces cortisol levels and steadies blood pressure and heart rate during stressful situations. The type of music that is most effective is different for everyone, though most experts have discovered that gentle tunes like classical pieces are the best at keeping us calm and, indeed, distracting us from stress-inducing circumstances.
2. Lethargy – Few things are more important than regular exercise, and yet it’s something that many of us struggle to fit into our daily routines thanks to office jobs, cars and other modern conveniences – not to mention a general lack of energy which comes with busy lifestyles and poor mental health in general. But there’s something about certain types of music that makes it irresistable to nod your head, tap your feet or sway along to the rhythm, as well as – when the moment calls for it – breaking into a dance. It’s unsurprising then that athletes and fitness fanatics enjoy plugging themselves in to some tunes as a motivational boost during their training sessions. Music inspires a spark of energy and encourages us to move our bodies, which in turn releases endorphins and improves our energy levels on a day-to-day basis.
3. Depression – Everybody has a song or two that never fails to lift them up when they’re feeling down. It could be the words, the melody, the instruments or the beat, but there’ll be something that causes a surge of dopamine to burst through our brains when we need it most. Plus, if music has positive lyrics, we’re likely to take note of them and when positive messages are replaying in our heads, it can act as a mood-stabilising mantra. It can also help us feel grounded and more connected to the world around us.
4. Problems with concentration – There’s a reason why many surgeons like to play classical music while performing long operations, and why students are encouraged to listen to music while they study. Apart from reducing any stress that might serve to affect our focus on the task at hand, neutral music has been shown to significantly improve cognitive activity allowing us to work effectively for longer. Music with lyrics, however, are generally quite distracting to most, particularly if the task involves reading or writing. Studies have also shown that upbeat music can speed up our activity, meaning we can get a lot more done in a day!
5. Social anxiety – There’s no doubt that social interaction is much easier to manage at places where there’s music playing. Festivals, clubs, concerts… We’re united by the euphoria that music elicits, as well as the obvious shared interests. It excites us, cheers us and makes us generally more approachable human beings. Plus, it gives you something to talk about if small talk isn’t one of your strengths.
6. Insomnia – According to SleepFoundation.org, music has a direct influence on the parasympathetic nervous system, which works to prepare the body for rest and sleep. Studies have shown that listening to calming music can help us fall asleep faster and sleep longer and deeper. Even if you’re not an insomniac, you could likely benefit from some better quality sleep. Given the stress of 2020, the fact that we’re constantly glued to our screens and most of us attempt to go to sleep moments after switching the television off, our sleep quality as a whole could well be improved.
7. PTSD – We’ve already discussed how music can help us with our sleep, anxiety, mood and socialising – which are all things that are affected by post traumatic stress disorder – but there are so many other symptoms of PTSD that music can be of equal help to. There’s evidence that shows that music can allow us to make new, more positive connections to emotional triggers and reprogram damaged neural pathways. Meanwhile, some sufferers of PTSD are triggered by pain, particularly if their trauma is related to surgery, injury or assault. Pain is often worsened by stress, and we already know that music is a big stress-buster, but music can also serve as helpful distraction. To put it more scientifically, music activates sensory pathways which then compete with the pain receptors in the brain, making the pain seem less intense. Who needs painkillers?
8. Problems with memory – Most of us struggle to remember quotes and poetry verses and probably spent hours trying to learn passages off by heart at school – so why is it that it only takes us a few listens of a catchy song for us to remember the lyrics for the rest of our lives? Rhythm and structure makes it easier for our brains to “sort out” the information, while the music itself makes for an added connection, as many of us find it easier to remember a tune than a set of words. Using musical cues can really help us to retain information, especially in people suffering from neurological conditions, and there’s even been studies that show calming music can improve our memory when it comes to studying.
We at Contactmusic love a good mood playlist, so if you’re inspired by this article, now might be a great time to put together your own list of songs to keep your mental health in good shape. Or, if you like, you can just use ours!