As a music therapist, I know a good song can get you through lockdown

In these challenging times of fear and isolation it is difficult to comprehend the sheer scale of the mental health crisis we face. 

People are detached from friends, family, work and the world outside their homes. As a music therapist I have also had to adapt to make sure those who are in need are not left without support due to social distancing.

That means making sure all my clients can access therapy sessions remotely, when I would normally see them at North London Music Therapy, where I work.

In the midst of this incredibly difficult time, music is something that is available to us all. While lockdown measures may have cut some people off from their usual coping mechanisms and routines, the right song can be therapeutic in a crisis.

Outside of my own work, I use music all the time to change or help my mood. I put on something upbeat when I go for a run, I listen to something relaxing while cooking, and I use classical music when I want to concentrate. But what works for me won’t work for everyone – we are all different, with individual needs and tastes.

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For years, I’ve used The Campfire Headphase by Boards of Canada to help me get to sleep when I’m feeling stressed. It has a steady pace with soothing electronic sounds and isn’t too busy or unpredictable – perfect for getting me into a relaxed, blissed-out state.

Creating a sense of familiarity and calm in your immediate environment is crucial when trying to combat feelings of anxiety. Any soundtrack you choose to help you do that should enable you to feel safe and in control in that moment. There’s no one genre that works better than another – the key is knowing tracks that resonate with you. 

Music’s effect on the brain can be felt by playing something with a lower tempo than the heart rate of a listener to calm them down in moments of anxiety, or by triggering associated memories and moods by returning them to familiar or comforting sounds. 

A song or playlist can assist the listener in feeling more centred and in control over how they are responding to their mood and emotions

In the words of my colleague Jonathan Cousins-Booth: ‘Music connects with our automatic nervous system (the brain stem that controls our blood pressure, brain function and heartbeat) and the limbic system (our feelings and emotions). If, for example, we hear music at a slower pace, the heart rate will begin to slow and blood pressure drop. This causes breathing to slow down, releasing tension and anxiety across the body.’

Not only can listening help you feel safe, it can enable you to mobilise yourself and take control over thoughts that might otherwise send you spiralling.

Try starting a playlist with songs that are feel-good and upbeat before taking yourself in another direction to explore how your emotions change through different styles, moods or tempos. Think about the meanings behind the songs and your relationships to them. 

This is a form of what music therapists call ‘containment’: using musical sounds to manage our thoughts in a way that allows clients to feel comfortable enough to start recognising and exploring their own feelings.

A song or playlist can assist the listener in feeling more centred and in control over how they are responding to their mood and emotions. Breathing can help to further calm a person down. 

One tip that I’ve given to many clients and friends during this lockdown to cope with the anxiety it brings is to sit down with your back set firm to a chair and your feet flat on the floor. Place one hand on your belly and breathe in, as if your abdomen is a balloon filling up with air. As you breathe out, imagine all the air going out of the balloon in your abdomen. Breathing deeply in this way supports your diaphragm – the muscle below your lungs that sits between your lower ribs – crucial for letting as much air in, and encouraging as much air out, as possible during a cycle of breath.

Make music part of your day to day routine, recognise when it helps you, and use it to help master your emotions. 

See is as more than just a soundtrack or something to listen to. It can be the most powerful tool to help your mental health that you didn’t even realise you already had.

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