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Mental Health

How the right song can help you manage anxiety

Maya Benattar is a licensed psychotherapist in New York City. Her office looks like the typical therapist’s office — calm and quiet, comfortable seating, soothing lighting. The perfect place to work through difficult feelings of anxiety and depression.

But a few items might catch your eye: a piano, drums, a guitar, and various other music-making tools. Not things you’d typically expect to see in a therapy setting.

That’s because Benattar — in addition to her credentials as a psychotherapist — is also a board-certified music therapist.

When it comes to coping tools, it’s hard to find something more universally loved and leaned on than music. Music therapy takes that to the next level, using music as an evidence-based tool for reaching clinical goals, with applications ranging from physical rehabilitation to mental health treatment.

But just because music is the primary tool doesn’t mean you need to be a skilled musician to benefit. Though the people she sees often have an emotional connection to music, Benattar stresses that musical skill or experience is not required. “Humans are naturally rhythmic. Our breath, our heartbeats, our schedules all have a rhythm,” she explains. “The beautiful thing about music therapy is that it incorporates the mind, body, and spirit into the therapy process, at a visceral, sensory level.”

Music has been used by humans throughout history for both mental and physical wellness, but music therapy as an organized therapeutic medium came around in the 1940s, when doctors and nurses in hospitals noticed the effects music had on soldiers coping with PTSD after the second World War. Today, there are over 5,000 board-certified music therapists in the United States, each having completed an accredited degree program, clinical training, and board examination.

The basis for using music as a therapeutic tool extends beyond anecdotal evidence — there’s hard science behind the melodies. Music therapy interventions have been shown in peer-reviewed studies to reduce stress levels, facilitate emotional release, and decrease anxiety in a variety of mental health settings.

But how does music therapy differ from simply throwing on some headphones and listening to your favorite album?

Benattar says it all comes down to having a guide through the process. “Often times, our instinct when feeling anxious or depressed is to try and shift our moods with music by only listening to ‘happy’ music, which is only masking those issues,” she says. “Something I work on my clients with is using music to tolerate or understand these feelings instead of just shifting them.“

“I want to help my clients use music listening in an intentional manner. To not just disconnect, but to understand and process their emotions.”

Jennifer Townsend — a board-certified music therapist based in Houston — takes a similar approach with her clients. Townsend works on an acute psychiatric facility, where patients are experiencing severe mental health crises. Yet the foundation is the same.

“Something I do with some of my clients is to help them with the process of really identifying anxiety and peace,” says Townsend. “Having them list out the words that describe both their anxiety and their ultimate goal, and using music as a vehicle to discuss those states of being.”

Townsend stresses that music is more than just lyrical content as well. The actual music — tempo, rhythm, melody, harmony, and timbre — can have a physiological effect on our bodies. Our heart rate and breathing can speed up or slow down to match the rhythm of a song, a phenomenon known as entrainment, and affect our physiological state as a result.

“We can use this to help move people into a more alert or calm state, depending on their need,” says Townsend. “We can match someone’s heart rate and emotion, and as the music changes, we can speed up or slow down that heart rate or mood. We entrain together, resulting in a physical change in the person.”

Besides addressing long-term therapeutic goals, Townsend also finds herself helping clients survive challenging “in-the-moment” mental health crises, using music to support things like progressive muscle relaxation to help manage an oncoming anxiety attack and teaching symptom management beyond the therapy room.

“The music therapist’s role is to build a relationship and observe while listening to or making music,” she says. “I want to see what nonverbal and verbal responses happen, and work through those responses to assist the healing process.”

While clinical music therapy requires the assistance of a trained and certified music therapist, both Townsend and Benattar stress the importance of empowering people to use music effectively on their own. “I never want to discount how people use music for their own self care. That’s very important,” says Benattar. “But I encourage people to use music listening in an intentional manner. Can you create a playlist for when you feel anxious? Or that lets you feel sad? That intentionality is important, rather than just masking what’s there.”

Curious where you can find a board-certified music therapist in your area? Check out the American Music Therapy Association website to find qualified music therapists near you. Or talk to your online therapist for suggestions.

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