How Music Can Impact Your Mental Health
Have you ever been listening to a song and all of a sudden felt overwhelmed by emotion, whether it is sadness, joy, nostalgia, or comfort? Have you ever uttered the phrase, “music is my therapy?” I know I have once or twice! If you have answered yes to these questions, this is probably because music can actually have a major impact on the mood and emotion regulation processes in our brain, and thus provide various psychological benefits. As such, music is not only for entertainment, pleasure, and bringing people together, but it can also be used as an incredibly helpful mental health tool.
Plenty of research has been conducted over the years looking into how music interacts with, and impacts, our brains and our overall health and wellbeing. Music can influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, and therefore it is a powerful catalyst for emotional expression. Many people may struggle to express their emotions in everyday life, but through listening to or performing their own music, all of a sudden it clicks and becomes simple and easy.
Music inherently provides a cathartic experience, which is why it can be so effective as a mental health and self-care tool. More than that, even a type of therapy called Music Therapy has been created, as studies have recognized just how useful music can be for people’s mental health, no matter the age. Below are some examples of just how much music can benefit our mental health and overall wellbeing:
1. Music improves cognitive function and performance
According to various studies, playing instrumental background music while completing a cognitive task can actually improve one’s ability to focus, and thus complete the task more effectively. Memory capabilities also have been seen to improve. This is said to be done by improving our brain’s processing speed. This type of research in particular has helped significantly with the treatment of older adults who are experiencing cognitive disorders or diseases such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. However, you do not have to be an older adult, or be experiencing severe cognitive challenges, in order to receive these same benefits. The next time you are studying for a test, or simply completing a task that requires significant focus, try putting on some instrumental or classical background music, and see if it improves your performance.
2. Music can facilitate stress reduction
According to research, listening to music can be an effective way to manage and cope with stress. Studies suggest that music has an impact on the human stress response - more specifically, our autonomic nervous system - which is the part of our nervous system that activates our fight or flight mechanism. Music can help to engage our parasympathetic nervous system that helps us calm down after encountering a stressor. Various studies have shown that listening to music soon after experiencing a stressful event can speed up the body’s recovery time from that stressful experience. As such, listening to music is especially helpful for people dealing with chronic stress and anxiety. In particular, it is said that listening to calm or meditative music can provide the most stress-reducing benefits. However, any music that you find especially relaxing will work just fine. If you are someone who deals with a lot of constant stress, or you are dealing with an anxiety disorder, consider creating a playlist for yourself of calming music that you can turn to in times of heightened stress. For additional relaxation benefits, ensure that you are listening to your music in a safe, calm, and quiet environment.
3. Music can improve sleep difficulties
Do you suffer from insomnia and just can’t seem to get yourself to sleep fast enough, night after night? Do you lay awake for hours tossing and turning and can’t turn your mind off? Research suggests that the increased relaxation from listening to music can actually improve sleep difficulties and sleep quality. More specifically, listening to classical music or a sleep story while trying to fall asleep can reduce the annoying effects of insomnia and improve your quality of sleep. If you feel like this may be a beneficial strategy for you, try listening to some quiet classical music on your phone or whatever device works best for you as you are trying to fall asleep. Try your best to push any thoughts or worries about your day out of your mind, and focus on the music and your breathing. You may notice yourself starting to feel calmer, and falling asleep faster. Better sleep = better mental and physical health!
4. Music can improve motivation and exercise performance
This one is quite self-explanatory! Listening to upbeat and encouraging music can actually motivate you to exercise more and get more out of your workouts! Research has shown that listening to this type of music while working out can enhance physical performance, improve mood, boost exercise efficiency, lessen fatigue, and cut down one’s awareness of physical exhaustion, leading to longer workouts. Exercise is also an integral factor in coping with mental health challenges. So, the next time you are struggling to motivate yourself to do an at-home workout, go for a long walk, or hit the gym, consider putting on some “pump-up” music of your choice.
5. Music can help treat mental health challenges like anxiety and depression
Research has shown that music can literally change our brains by triggering the release of various neurochemicals that contribute to brain function and mental health, such as dopamine, cortisol, serotonin, and oxytocin. Dopamine is the neurochemical that is associated with our reward system that brings us feelings of pleasure, and serotonin is the neurochemical that stabilizes our mood and provides a sense of well-being and happiness. Cortisol, on the other hand, is our stress hormone, and oxytocin is the neurochemical that helps us bond with those around us. All of these neurochemicals are implicated in various mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, to name a few, and are activated when listening to music. In particular, calming music blended with nature sounds is said to be the most beneficial for reducing cortisol, the stress hormone, for people with anxiety, whereas classical or jazz music is said to be the most beneficial for people with depression. As such, listening to music activates the brain chemicals that help us regulate our moods and emotions. However, the most benefits are seen with repeated and consistent listening behaviours.
So, what’s the bottom line here?
Sometimes, we really just need to allow ourselves to listen to what our bodies are trying to communicate to us, and allow ourselves to really FEEL our emotions as they come up, even though at times it can feel scary and uncomfortable. As previously discussed, listening to, or playing music really helps to facilitate this process, getting you in touch with your emotions and improving your ability to regulate your mood. If you feel like using music as a mental health tool could be helpful for you, consider this:
Whether you feel like you really need a good cry, or you have been feeling emotionally numb and are struggling to connect to your emotions or find a release, creating playlists of songs that you know will elicit an emotional response can do the trick! It is important that when we feel the need or urge to express our emotions, we listen to what our body is trying to tell us, and lean into it. Holding our emotions in, or trying to avoid confronting them, will only make things worse in the long-term. As such, listening to music in the comfort of your own home can be a safe and effective outlet for exploring and releasing your emotions.
Consider creating some playlists for yourself that you know will elicit an emotional response. You can create a playlist with particularly happy sounding music, or sad sounding music, or angry sounding music, and turn to these playlists whenever you notice a particular emotion coming up within yourself. If it helps to dance around to the music or engage in some form of physical release, then add that into the mix as well! I know that I always feel happier and more relaxed after blasting some music and dancing around for a while, and I hope you will, too!
Happy listening, everyone!
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