Music is an important aspect of the way we live our lives. It communicates ideas, inspires emotions, drives our actions. It can be a cultural artifact that gives us diverse insights, and develops our sense of empathy. As mentioned in a previous post (see here), similarly to many of our artistic endeavors, music is at once a beautiful entertainment and a force for holistic positivity.
This is something we need now more than ever. Aside from the pressures and isolation as a result of COVID-19, many of us are also having to deal with a range of mental health issues. Studies have reported that 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 6 children in the U.S. are living with some form of mental illness. This makes it a statistical likelihood that at least someone in our family is having to navigate these types of challenges.
So how can we use music to benefit our mental wellbeing? How do musical activities affect our handling of both day-to-day difficulties and more series crises? Let’s take a closer look into a few of the main areas of focus.
We are subject to multiple types of stimulus throughout the average day. In some cases, these serve to exacerbate the negative mental strain we may be experiencing. The constant stream of work tasks, the relentlessly bleak news stories on our screens, the various demands of the day that ring in our ears. Which is why it’s important to assert some control over stimulus, and take time to replace the negativity with experiences that require nothing of us but to sit back and listen for a moment.
This is where music can have positive effects on our mental wellbeing. Indeed, studies have shown that having orchestral music on in the background has helped people maintain a sense of calm during lockdown isolation. As individuals, it can be useful to consider the types of feelings or mood that we want to inspire, and make selections accordingly. Listening to specific songs activates pathways in our brains that are linked to certain types of emotion — this can be particularly effective when a song is already connected to a specific positive memory.
This isn’t just a case of having a tune on in the background, either. At times when we are feeling particularly anxious or stressed, it can be wise to set aside a dedicated period of active listening and spend quality time with the music. Think about the memories that the music stimulates, what it makes you feel, and even the reactions in your body. It operates almost on a meditative level, providing an awareness of what you’re experiencing, and encouraging you to acknowledge and understand the moment, rather than react to negative stimuli.
The creative impulse seems written into our nature. While we might not all think that we have the potential to produce great works of art, that doesn’t mean to say that we can’t enrich our lives by engaging in the process. Playing a musical instrument is known to be a tool for maintaining our mental health. On the most basic level, it is excellent for self-esteem; there’s a frequent sense of achievement when you learn a new song or technique. It also provides a focus for our attention at times when we’re feeling depressed or anxious.
However, the benefits of playing an instrument also go deeper. Studies have shown that it actually improves cognitive functioning in adults. The actions necessary for playing music stimulate the brain’s ability to rewire itself and create new pathways. This is among the reasons why music therapy is used for patients with dementia, and stroke victims. However, it’s worth noting that these cognitive improvements aren’t limited to older players, they have the potential to affect the growth of all family members.
It’s also worth considering music as an outlet for stress and isolation during these times of lockdown. Kids, in particular, have a lot to contend with between the unusual circumstances, distance from friends, and schooling in their home space. Giving them home music lessons can be a break away from the isolation of lockdown for a fun, holistically enriching activity. They get to build new skills and develop a conduit for their emotions that will serve them well throughout their lives. It also doesn’t hurt that learning an instrument has been linked to improvements in kids’ academic performance.
Music and physical activity are great bedfellows. But that’s not to say that all combinations of the two are optimal for everyone. We don’t all have time to get out of the house and run to our favorite tunes — which, incidentally has been found to have some potentially negative consequences. However, we all have a few minutes in our day to dance to our favorite songs.
Regular gentle exercise is one of the key elements of maintaining mental wellness, alongside the more obvious physical benefits. Dancing combines the exercise component with the mental stimulation that music produces — resulting in neurological effects that helps to combat the effects of depression, anxiety, and stress. This is largely the result of serotonin. Rather than the “high” you get from endorphins in running, dancing releases and circulates serotonin throughout the body, which helps create a feeling of emotional contentment.
As with many musical activities, dancing is believed to improve cognitive functioning. Studies have shown actions that engage the mind and the body strengthens global cognition, and may help in preventing dementia. Dancing also happens to be an activity that the entire family can benefit from. There’s no expectation on skill; it’s all about just letting go of stress and moving to the music in any way that makes you feel good.
Music is one of the most accessible and emotionally evocative artforms we humans engage in. At this time of intense strain, it can also help us maintain our mental wellness. Listening, playing, and dancing to music each have the potential to improve our moods, boost cognitive functioning, and ease the stresses in our lives.