We all know music can be a very therapeutic thing, it’s there to calm you and relate to. As My Chemical Romance sang “you only hear the music when your heart begins to break”, in this first of a two part feature on music and mental health, in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness week, one of our writers, Chandni, demonstrates just how music can help with mental health disorders.
“I have seen deeply demented patients weep or shiver as they listen to music they have never heard before, and I think that they can experience the entire range of feelings the rest of us can… Once one has seen such responses, one knows that there is still a self to be called upon, even if music, and only music, can do the calling.” – Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia.
People using music as a form of therapy isn’t unheard of. It has bought plenty of people back from their darkest times with illnesses such as depression and dementia. Although it technically isn’t a medication, there is not a doubt that it’s powerful enough to positively change someone’s life.
Josh*, 19, has suffered from depression, insomnia, and anxiety since he was 11. After struggling for years and feeling like nothing will ever improve, at age 16, he overdosed on medication, taking almost enough to end his life. Music has always played a huge role in his life, specifically rock music. By immersing himself in it, music helped him keep suicidal thoughts at bay, and gave him the strength to move forward and recover, almost acting as a therapy.
He chose music over conventional forms of therapy as he didn’t feel like he could talk to anyone about it – even a therapist who he saw for a year. He felt like no one would understand. So, what was there to help him?
Josh explains, “bands like Modern Baseball and The Story So Far really helped me turn things around. I feel like listening to music helps me calm down, take myself out of the worst times in my life, and it helps me see the world in a more positive light, like everything isn’t just a giant pit of darkness. A lot of the songs I listen to remind me of better times: seeing those bands live at festivals, songs playing at parties, and songs I’ve heard with my friends. ‘Basket Case’ by Green Day is one of those songs that takes me back to being in the park with my friends when I was really young, and it just reminds me of a happier time when life wasn’t so stressful.”
“When I’m feeling depressed and anxious, I constantly feel like I’m on edge and I start sweating, my heart rate increases, and I tend to constantly think about the world as a downward spiral into death. I start feeling distant from everyone and everything, and that makes it worse. It starts to feel like nothing will change and that my life will just continue down this path and I’ll never be happy again, so maybe it’s better to end it all. After listening to music, I’m calmer, my heart rate is slower, I am able to calm down, and I stop having thoughts about dying.”
From a psychological perspective, looking at actual brain activity, Renee Schapiro, M.Sc, expert in music therapy and dementia, explains what happens to the brain when you listen to music:
“Research has shown that music can be used to mediate symptoms of depression by stimulating and regulating activity in brain structures that operate abnormally in depressed individuals. Music also activates structures in the brain that are important for the experience and anticipation of pleasure. However, music uniquely evokes high emotional intensity responses, like “thrills”, “chills”, or “shivers down the spine”.
“Sad music is often thought of as pleasurable when perceived as non-threatening, aesthetically pleasing, leading to emotion regulation, and/or producing empathetic feelings. Music seems to uniquely provide individuals with depression with an outlet for their emotions, a way to feel connected to others (such as the composer and/or musicians), and a way to regulate emotional states (by balancing their negative feelings with upbeat music).”
Josh said “Specifically, it’s the acoustic sound and the mellow chord sequences in songs like ‘Clairvoyant’ by The Story So Far, and the upbeat tempo and middle class lethargy in songs such as ‘Rock Bottom’ by Modern Baseball that allow me to have a more positive outlook on life, and not feel anxious. It just speaks to me, and makes me feel like I’m not alone.
Music is one of the few things everyone has in common, which explains why it can help you feel less alone when you’re feeling your loneliest. From blues origins of people singing away the pain, to bands like As It Is releasing albums based solely around the concept of it being okay to not be okay – when you’re at your worst, music can undoubtedly help. Empathy plays a massive part in recovery, and making someone just feel better. Helping people realise that they aren’t alone, and that better times have happened is extremely important in the recovery of mental illness.
Josh continued, “Music has the ability to change my mood like nothing else. Not just other people’s music, but being a musician, writing is incredibly cathartic. When I can’t put down how I’m feeling into words, I can compose a melody or chord sequence that just releases some of the negative thoughts that build up inside. It makes me feel like I can breathe again. I’ve written songs about my insomnia, and it actually made me feel relaxed enough to sleep again.”
Music may not be a widely used cure for depression, but for Josh, it’s much more help than anything a doctor can prescribe. He is still living a life heavily involved with music. Listening to it, writing it, consuming in any way – even if he isn’t particularly aware of it. To him, and plenty of other people around the world, it’s more than just noise. It’s something that helps them remember better times, and something that just makes them feel like them.
*Names have been changed for privacy.