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Music Therapy

Tue, 09/26/2023 - 12:12

Families, Inc. therapist Dr. Dana Watson has been featured regularly on KFIN’s Breakfast Club to discuss maintaining a healthy mindset. The following is a transcript from a recent interview she had with KFIN’s Breakfast Club’s Brandon Baxter.

Brandon Baxter: Listening to music can be an amazing experience, as anyone who has been transported by a great song can attest. But what is music therapy, and how does it relate to mental health?
Dr. Dana Watson: In Daniel Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music, he speaks about the emotional connection we form with the music we hear in our pre-teen and teen years when we’re first forming our identity as an individual. He shares that music affects our dopamine levels in a way similar to eating tasty food or exercising, and that it impacts the same area of the brain as cocaine. 

Yep, and get this - this imprinting is especially strong in early adulthood, from the teens to early twenties, when our developing brains experience the world for the first time on a deeper level. And just like our first experience with French fries or cocaine (so they tell me), the physical and emotional memory of our first experience will be more impactful than our 100th experience. 

They call this “the reminiscence bump.” It helps explain why the music we hear when we are first developing our tastes remains our personal measure of what is “good” music for the rest of our lives, even if our tastes mature. This is why The Beatles are still considered “great music” in 2023, yet in 1964, The Boston Globe referred to them as “anti-music.” 

Makes total sense why I get such a nostalgic good feeling when I hear a song from my teen years in a random place, like when I’m at the grocery store.
If you fell head over heels for a person in or around 1990 and made cassette tapes of the song when it came on the radio (let’s say, hypothetically, your crush was Billy and you waited up all night for Journey and REO Speedwagon to come on so you could tape it), you may never be able to hear that song without thinking of Billy. 

Of course that’s a hypothetical. 
100%. But also, please don’t play “Faithfully,”…. I’m a happily married woman now. 😊

So, how does using music in therapy help? And does a therapist have to specialize in this, or can anyone do it?
Music therapy is a therapeutic approach that uses music and its various elements, such as rhythm, melody, and lyrics, to address emotional, cognitive, and social needs. It can positively impact mental health by providing a creative outlet for expression and promoting relaxation and emotional processing. There are certified music therapists, but many other therapists use music as a tool in their practice. 

It seems like a lot of musicians are incorporating mental health themes into their music. Maybe they always have, or maybe I’m just noticing it more now. Can you think of a few that might be helpful to our listeners if they want to check it out? 
Yes! Many singers and songwriters incorporate themes related to mental health in their music to raise awareness and connect with their audience on a personal level. Some that immediately come to mind are Blue October, Billie Eilish, Demi Lovato, Halsey, Ed Sheeran, Logic and Kid Cudi. 
*View list of additional artists that cover mental health topics in their music at the end of this transcript*

Wow. I love that artists are using their platforms and music as a means to encourage conversations around mental health and help reduce the stigma associated with these issues.
It’s really awesome. Most of us can relate to the music, and it definitely helps reduce the stigma around mental health challenges and treatment. And the songs are not just about how to help cope with or overcome some of the more traditional mental health issues. Artists use their musical talents to shed light on the complexities of mental health, helping listeners connect with their own experiences and emotions.
Sia’s music often explores themes of mental health, addiction, and healing. Jimmy Eat World and Twenty One Pilots address the challenges of growing up. Halsey’s music addresses bipolar disorder and identity, and Ed Sheeran has a couple of songs that deal with the impact of Alzheimer’s disease and the challenges of growing up in a small town. And you know every country singer from Dolly to Merle to Miranda to Chris all have stories to tell that can normalize pain and healing.

This may sound intuitive, but how does music therapy affect our brains?
That’s a great question. Music therapy has been shown to stimulate various regions of the brain, including those involved in the processing of emotions, memory, and executive function. Stimulating these areas can have a positive impact on mood, cognition, and overall mental well-being. 

The goals of music therapy in mental health treatment are usually reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, improving emotional regulation, enhancing self-esteem, promoting relaxation, fostering self-expression, and facilitating communication and social interaction.

So, what kind of music techniques are used in therapy? I envision it would be therapeutic to sing, play the drums, or even write songs? 
Actually, all of that can be used. Some of the most common music therapy techniques include songwriting, lyric analysis, and guided relaxation with music, just to name a few. The techniques are tailored to the individual’s or group’s specific needs and goals.

How would music therapy help you as a psychologist when you are treating someone?
Well, there are several different ways. First, because the sounds of our youth are imprinted into our brains in such a powerful and intimate way, researchers have found that music may help those suffering from emotional issues, addiction, or even dementia. For people who have dementia, playing the music they listened to at that critical 13-14-year-old juncture can activate parts of the brain that may have been lying dormant. These folks can become more active and focused after listening to songs that they have a connection to. 

Patients who have emotional or addiction issues may be more willing to open up as they explore current and past experiences triggered by music they have associations with.

The positive feelings brought on by the music may encourage them, bring a sense of calm, or inspire them toward more healthy activities - or even just distract them from intrusive or anxious thoughts. 

“Great” music (which, as we know, is subjective to every person) releases dopamine - a feel-good neurotransmitter. 

Okay, to get personal, do you have music or songs that are therapeutic to you? 
Yes, I really do. Right now, I am obsessed with “The Middle,” originally by Jimmy Eat World, but covered by Caleb Grimm. It’s a slower version and allows me to really absorb the lyrics. I frequently feel like I am in the middle of some life event (or storm), and I’m raising two precious children who are “in the middle” of making friends, learning about themselves, learning about the world. It’s soothing and encouraging.  

As a clinician, I love Blue October and have used their music with patients for years… and I would suggest anyone struggling with mental health or addiction start with their very first album and listen all the way through. I could go on and on, but I also find the “Higher Love” duet between Steve and Lilly Winwood to be inspiring and encouraging. 

Sometimes, I find that covers or acoustic versions are the ones that are most therapeutic for me, but other people like the fast, racing, headbanging versions to help them process things or calm down.

If you are interested in learning more about therapy or even think you might want to incorporate music into your therapy, reach out to Families, Inc. at 870-933-6886.

As a bonus, here’s a list of artists to help get you started with discovering music that may be therapeutic for you. Their songs cover topics from struggles with mental health, addiction, and emotional issues, to healing, recovery, and self-discovery. When you’re feeling down, hopeless, or alone, great music can offer a shoulder to lean on. 

  • Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash's catalog includes songs that touch on themes of addiction, depression, and redemption. One of his most famous songs, "Hurt," covers these themes in a poignant and introspective way.
  • Dolly Parton: Dolly Parton has written and sung about personal struggles and emotional experiences throughout her career. Her song "9 to 5" addresses the stress and frustration of the daily grind, which can have an impact on mental health.
  • Willie Nelson: Willie Nelson is known for his introspective songwriting. Songs like "Crazy," famously recorded by Patsy Cline, delve into the complexities of love and emotional turmoil, which are often linked to mental health challenges.
  • Kacey Musgraves: Kacey Musgraves is a contemporary country artist who has been praised for her candid and introspective songwriting. Tracks like "Space Cowboy" and "Rainbow" touch on themes of heartbreak, resilience, and finding hope in challenging times.
  • Chris Stapleton: Chris Stapleton's music often explores themes of hardship and emotional struggles. His song "Fire Away" directly addresses the topic of mental health and the desire to help a loved one who is suffering.
  • Merle Haggard: Known for his raw and honest songwriting, Merle Haggard's songs often delve into personal struggles and hardships. Tracks like "Mama Tried" and "If We Make It Through December" touch on themes of regret, loneliness, and resilience.
  • Miranda Lambert: Miranda Lambert has addressed themes of heartbreak, empowerment, and self-discovery in her music. Songs like "The House That Built Me" and "Tin Man" touch on emotional struggles and healing.
  • Eric Church: Eric Church has sung about various aspects of life, including the challenges and joys. His song "Kill a Word" discusses the power of words and how they can affect mental and emotional well-being.
  • Brandy Clark: Brandy Clark is known for her songwriting that delves into the complexities of human emotions. Songs like "Stripes" and "Hold My Hand" explore themes of anger, frustration, and coping with difficult situations.
  • Zac Brown Band: The Zac Brown Band has produced music that reflects on personal struggles and the human experience. Songs like "Colder Weather" and "All the Best" address themes of longing, loss, and the search for happiness.
  • Eminem: Eminem's music often delves into his personal battles with addiction, depression, and his inner demons. Songs like "Stan" and "Not Afraid" touch on these themes.
  • Kanye West: Kanye West has been open about his struggles with bipolar disorder, and his album "ye" is a deeply introspective exploration of his mental health.
  • Kid Cudi: Kid Cudi is known for addressing issues of depression and anxiety in his music. Tracks like "Pursuit of Happiness" and "Day 'n' Nite" speak to these themes.
  • Logic: Logic has released songs like "1-800-273-8255," which is named after the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and it tackles the subject of suicide and mental health awareness.
  • Sia: Sia has written songs like "Chandelier" that touch on themes of addiction and emotional vulnerability. She has also been open about her own struggles with mental health.
  • Linkin Park: The band's frontman, Chester Bennington, was open about his struggles with depression and addiction. Songs like "Numb" and "In the End" reflect these themes.
  • Twenty One Pilots: This duo often explores themes of anxiety, depression, and self-doubt in their music. Songs like "Stressed Out" and "Car Radio" are examples of this.
  • Nina Simone: Nina Simone's song "Feeling Good" captures a sense of empowerment and self-care, which are important aspects of mental health.
  • Bob Marley: Bob Marley's music often carries messages of hope, unity, and peace, which can be seen as addressing mental well-being and social harmony.
  • Bill Withers: Songs like "Lean on Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine" by Bill Withers convey a range of emotions and can resonate with those experiencing mental health challenges.
  • Kurt Cobain (Nirvana): Kurt Cobain's lyrics often delved into themes of depression, alienation, and inner turmoil. Songs like "Lithium" and "In Bloom" are examples of this.
  • Alanis Morissette: Alanis Morissette's album "Jagged Little Pill" includes songs like "You Oughta Know" and "Perfect" that explore themes of anger, self-doubt, and emotional struggles.
  • XXXTentacion: While controversial, XXXTentacion's music often touched on themes of depression, anxiety, and personal demons. His song "Sad!" is a notable example.
  • Linkin Park (Chester Bennington): In addition to the band as a whole, Chester Bennington's work in Linkin Park provided a platform for discussing mental health. Songs like "Crawling" and "One More Light" are poignant examples.
  • Lana Del Rey: Lana Del Rey's music often deals with themes of melancholy, heartbreak, and existential struggles. Songs like "Summertime Sadness" and "Young and Beautiful" explore these emotions.
  • Mac Miller: Mac Miller's music, especially in his later work, delves into themes of addiction, depression, and self-reflection. Songs like "Self Care" and "Swimming" explore these topics.
  • Halsey: Halsey has been open about her struggles with bipolar disorder and has addressed mental health in her music. Tracks like "Gasoline" and "Sorry" touch on themes of inner turmoil and self-acceptance.
  • Demi Lovato: Demi Lovato's music and advocacy work focus on mental health awareness and her own journey to recovery. Songs like "Skyscraper" and "Sober" discuss themes of addiction and resilience.
  • Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park, Fort Minor): Beyond his work with Linkin Park, Mike Shinoda's solo project Fort Minor has touched on personal struggles and resilience. The song "Where'd You Go" addresses themes of loss and longing.
  • Ed Sheeran: Ed Sheeran has addressed themes of loneliness, anxiety, and self-doubt in songs like "The A Team" and "Save Myself," offering a sense of vulnerability and relatability.
  • Adele: Adele's music often delves into the emotional and mental toll of heartbreak and loss. Songs like "Someone Like You" and "Hello" explore themes of longing and sadness.
  • Elliott Smith: Elliott Smith's introspective and emotionally charged music often touched on themes of depression and inner turmoil. Songs like "Between the Bars" and "Miss Misery" reflect these struggles.
  • MGMT: The band MGMT has incorporated themes of mental health, drug use, and existentialism into their music. Songs like "Electric Feel" and "Time to Pretend" address these topics in a unique way.
  • Lil Peep: Lil Peep's music was known for its raw exploration of addiction, depression, and mental health challenges. Tracks like "Awful Things" and "Life is Beautiful" speak to these themes.

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