Music on Your Mind; How Music can Heal
By Shea Shattuck-Faegre
“In this life, in this life, in this life
In this, oh sweet life
We’re (we’re coming in from the cold)…”
–Bob Marley and the Wailers, Coming in From the Cold
I will tell you that music has proven to be an invaluable tool in my personal growth and healing over these past few months. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that, in addition to the strain added to all our lives while living in a pandemic, I also experienced a number of major life changes and hardships. The first time I heard the song Coming in From the Cold by Bob Marley and the Wailers, I recognized it as a treatise on the human drama, and the very process I was going through. It helped me to recognize that, no matter what hardship I was facing, it was a universal experience. That all of us are, in this life, coming in from the cold. Our journey is to get to that warm, inviting, loving space, where we are loved unconditionally, accepted as we are, where we belong. That song, and many others, helped me transform grief and suffering into healing and connection.
The science affirms why music was so helpful to me. Brain structures involved in emotional processing, memory, attachment, and our rewards systems are all affected by music. A large body of research examines our brain’s responsivity to music, and demonstrates how it can affect physiological states, alter subjective feelings, and influence our body’s movements (for example, as we keep time with the beat or engage in dance).1
For those looking to improve their mental wellbeing, music’s ability to impact our emotional centers and nervous system holds great significance for self-care routines. Much has already been written on therapeutic applications of music for many diverse populations- from those receiving cancer treatments who are experiencing anxiety, to individuals with chronic substance use problems, to refugee and asylee populations who navigate major uncertainties while often shouldering profound trauma in their histories, to older adults in long-term care facilities. This research tells us that music can profoundly alter mood states, lift us out of emotional turmoil, and perhaps even help us process experiences from our past and present that burden our psyche.
There is value in proactively choosing music that uplifts one’s mood and counters negative emotional states, such as loneliness, depression, hardship, grief, loss, being abandoned by a romantic love, or overwhelming stress. As an example, loneliness affects many of us, and is associated with depression, anxiety, and isolation. The CDC reported recently that more than 1/3rd of American’s over the age of 45 “feel lonely” in general. 2 People of all ages experience loneliness, and this seems to be amplified by the current pandemic. Yet, research tells us that even for those most vulnerable to loneliness- elder populations- there is demonstrable benefit in the listening to and sharing of music. 3,4
Life is full of challenges and uncertainty. We can intentionally work with music to help us process and transform our more difficult emotions and experiences by incorporating music into our self-care routines. No matter what genre of music you prefer, I encourage you to ask yourself if you could incorporate music that uplifts you, that helps you build resilience, and that enhances your experience of life, on life’s terms. Oftentimes, we cannot change the circumstances we find ourselves in. We can almost never change the actions of others, nor can we change the past. But we can change ourselves and our own perspective- and one of the easiest, most accessible ways to do so is by listening to music.
“It’s you, it’s you, it’s you I’m talkin’ to
Well, you (it’s you) you (it’s you), you I’m talking to now
Why do you look so sad and forsaken
When one door is closed, don’t you know another is open.”
1Lief, John (2014) Music Stimulates Emotions Through Specific Brain Circuits, https://jonlieffmd.com/blog/music-stimulates-emotions-through-specific-brain-circuits
2 CDC (2020) Loneliness and Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions, https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html
3 Gold, C., Eickholt, J. & Assmus, J. et al (2019). Music Interventions for Dementia and Depression in Elderly care (MIDDEL): protocol and statistical analysis plan for a multinational cluster-randomised trial. BMJ open, 9(3), e023436. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2018-023436
4 Takahashi T, Matsushita H. Long-term effects of music therapy on elderly with moderate/severe dementia. J Music Ther. 2006 Winter;43(4):317-33. doi: 10.1093/jmt/43.4.317. PMID: 17348758.