March is Music Therapy Awareness Month! Take a Creative Approach to Your Wellness
Updated: Apr 18
You’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic on your morning commute, glancing anxiously at the clock and running through your mental to-do list, when suddenly you recognize the opening notes to one of your all-time favourite songs. As you reach for the volume button on your car stereo, you feel your mouth begin to shape the words without any apparent direction from your brain. Your feet automatically tap along with the irresistible rhythm while your mind wanders back to a moment, many years ago, when this song attached itself to a memory – to a chapter in your life’s story.
My work in the mental health care field began with an undergrad degree in music therapy. I went on to complete a clinical internship in mental health recovery services at a large psychiatric treatment hospital, working with clients living with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression, borderline personality disorder and other mental illnesses. Although I no longer practice clinically myself I recognize how fortunate I’ve been to witness the profound impact music can have on humans who have been struggling in all sorts of different ways.
Throughout history, music has been used as a means of emotional expression and social connection. As a result, our response to music is engrained and our connection to it feels effortless. For many of us music is a very accessible tool we have at our disposal. While music therapy itself refers to assessment and treatment carried out by a Certified Music Therapist (learn more about that HERE), putting some thought into how you experience music and using it intentionally can carry some pretty awesome health benefits.
5 Ways to Use Music to Support Your Mental Health:
1. Play with Purpose
Forget the “shuffle” button. Music isn’t a magic wand, so you’re unlikely to reap any real benefit from it unless you first put some thought into what you need and what kind of music can give you that. If you’re starting off your day and looking for an energy boost your playlist will likely look a lot different than one you’d use to relax at the end of a long day. Rather than rotating through a general “favourites” list, set up different playlists that serve different purposes.
2. Connect Through Music
Music is a great social connector. Share the music that’s important to you with someone you care about. Tell your spouse a story about a song you loved as a teenager. Learn a silly kids song with your toddler and integrate singing it together into part of your daily routine, like getting dressed in the morning or at bath time. Ask a parent or other family member about the music they associate with an important event in their life, such as the song they danced to on their wedding day.
3. Soothe Your Mind
Years ago, when CDs were the most modern way of accessing recorded music, I came across one titled The Most Relaxing Album in the World. Not possible! We all respond differently to different types of music and there simply isn’t a universally “relaxing” style. Some people find listening to music without words helps them to unwind—likely because the language-processing part of the brain doesn’t have to engage—while others experience instrumental music as monotonous and not effective for relaxation because it doesn’t hold their attention. Do a little experimenting to find out what works for you.
4. Take a Trip Down Memory Lane… With Caution
In portioned-out doses, music that you associate with a difficult time in your life can help you work through emotional pain. For example, listening to a song that you associate with a loved one you’ve lost can help you to recall good memories you shared and support the grieving process. Exercise this point with caution, as too much/too soon might be triggering, make you feel overwhelmed or otherwise worsen things. If you want to fully capitalize on music’s ability to help with grief or as an emotional support tool, seek the services of a Certified Music Therapist to help.
5. Let It Move You!
There are times when it feels good to experience music by letting it wash over you, but I’ll bet you can think of at least a handful of songs that elicit a physical reaction – music that makes you want to sing at the top of your lungs, dance, clap your hands, tap your toes or break out your air guitar. Our physiological connection to music unfortunately sometimes ends up being masked by social appropriateness. Adults regularly say things like, “I can’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow!” or feel awkward dancing in front others. A performance certainly doesn’t have to be of high technical quality to make you feel good! A music therapist will tell you that the corny “Sing like no one’s listening / Dance like no one’s watching” quote really is a philosophy to live by.
Right now you’re probably thinking, “Hmm, interesting… But what does this have to do with mental health in the workplace?”
Here’s the tie-in: when we think of treatment options for mental health issues, a traditional medical model is often what pops in to people’s minds. In reality, a wide variety of evidence-based, “outside the box” approaches exist. Just a handful of years ago, counselling was thought of as a novel idea. Now it’s recognized as one of the most effective treatments for many if not most mental health problems. Emerging research is indicating that acupuncture may well be an effective treatment option for depression; that EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy can help treat PTSD; and yes, music therapy—as implemented by a Certified Music Therapist—can help alleviate symptoms of a variety of mental health issues (and if you have an extended health care plan, it may cover sessions with a Certified Music Therapist!). If you’re struggling with a mental health problem, be sure to check out all your options.
If you’re interested in learning more about music therapy or in finding a Certified music therapist near you, visit New Brunswick owned and operated company Arpeggio Music Therapy and the Canadian Association of Music Therapists’ website.
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.