Music Therapy for PTSD
Music can connect us to strong memories (good and bad). It can move us and create a swell of strong emotion. It has been used for centuries to soothe or enchant, as well as to create the right mood or to stir people to action. Who can resist tapping their foot on hearing a lively tune!
Music’s power to create significant responses can be witnessed in the way people with dementia become energised and engaged by songs from their youth; and how people with severe speech impediments sing beautifully with no sign of their challenges.
As music is so tied up with emotional, mental and physical responses, it has an important role in the field of PTSD therapies. Let’s explore insights into music therapy for PTSD.
The science behind Music Therapy
Listening to your favourite music is a good way to escape the things that make you anxious and depressed and can be a much-needed distraction. However, music as a therapy tool goes beyond that.
Instead, it explores your responses to pieces of music, to alleviate PTSD symptoms and relax you. This can include, for example, finding the best music to help you to go to sleep quicker and have fewer nightmares.
So how does music therapy work?
One of the ways music therapy affects mental health is that it stimulates the release of positive hormones such as oxytocin. One study found that people who sing for half an hour become energised and emotionally lifted by the experience, thanks to the rush of oxytocin.
Music also counteracts hormones linked to increased stress – particularly Cortisol – the hormone that is often un-regulated in people with PTSD. One study measured the drop in cortisol levels for individuals listening to soothing music, in comparison to silence or rippling water. Music proved the most significant.
Setting aside the chemistry behind music therapy, it also provides sensory input that makes us instinctively ease muscle tension. Which is why music is often used in junction with Progressive Muscle Relaxation.
More evidence music therapy works
Music therapy is what’s known as an evidence-based technique to treat PTSD. (It is also used for other anxiety and depression disorders, and brain injuries too.) There are many examples of diverse studies into its effectiveness.
One of these studies focused specifically on people with persistent PTSD, who may have found talking therapies uncomfortable or ineffective. The study also looked at delivering music as a group therapy tool, thanks to support from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.
The results included a ‘significant’ reduction in PTSD symptoms like hyperarousal, avoidance, and re-experiencing.
Another study looked at music in relation to military personnel. It concluded: “Music has long been used with the military to enhance quality of life, and today music therapy interventions are used to promote health, enhance quality of life, and improve functioning”
How to access music therapy
Anyone can use music to help them to achieve their PTSD goals, including to relax, meditate and fall asleep more easily.
However, a trained therapist can use music to stimulate not just an emotional response, but also a cognitive one. They can frame physical reactions and support positive associations using pieces of music, to enhance or supplement Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for instance.
You can find a licensed music therapist through a variety of places including the British Association for Music Therapy website: https://www.bamt.org/music-therapy/music-therapy-in-the-uk
You can also join an online choir from Nordoff Robbins (the UK’s largest music therapy charity) here: https://www.nordoff-robbins.org.uk/online-choir/
It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.
- Carr C, d’Ardenne P, Sloboda A, Scott C, Wang D, Priebe S. Group music therapy for patients with persistent post-traumatic stress disorder–an exploratory randomized controlled trial with mixed methods evaluation. Psychol Psychother. 2012 Jun;85(2):179-202. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.2011.02026.x. Epub 2011 Jun 20. PMID: 22903909.
- Lori F Gooding, PhD, MT-BC, Diane G Langston, MM, MT-BC, Music Therapy With Military Populations: A Scoping Review, Journal of Music Therapy, Volume 56, Issue 4, Winter 2019, Pages 315–347, https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/thz010
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