July 06, 2017

How Music Helps Us Heal – Jenni Schaefer and Kathryn Bruno

music therapy for mental health issues“I’m hopeless,” I sobbed to my therapist, “I’m never going to get better.”
I had been crying in therapy for nearly an hour. My therapist was really experienced. But even with his knowledge and guidance, I was convinced that nothing was going to change.
I’m never going to recover, I thought to myself. And then, my therapist excused himself from the room. Uh oh, I thought, feeling uncomfortable.
My therapist had never done this before. I assumed that my negativity must have been so annoying that he needed a break.
[When we struggle with mental health issues, our brains can often fear the worst and come up with all kinds of inaccurate, imaginative scenarios].
He walked back into the room carrying a beautiful, worn out Martin guitar.
Hmmm, I wondered, a bit frustrated. Is he going to sing for me?
I was locked in a very negative place. And while a small part of me appreciated his creativity, a much larger part of me was convinced that this wasn’t going to help. And I wasn’t happy.
Nothing is going to make a difference.
To my surprise, however, he didn’t sing. He handed me the guitar and asked me to sing.
I picked up the guitar and felt the wood against my body. The guitar’s vibrations gently told me that I was still there: the Jenni that I thought I had lost to mental illness (again) had not gone anywhere. For the first time in that session, I felt my body sitting on the chair, in the room.
The guitar reminded me of my strength: how hard I had fought to learn how to play that thing. You see, a guitar once lived in my closet, collecting dust, while I avoided it — fearing that I would never play it perfectly — and feeling unable to sit still long enough to play it. Now, a guitar feels comforting. And as I reflected on all of this — music, my creative self, my life’s journey — my perspective in that moment began to shift.
I strummed a few chords and started to sing. In that moment, I became one with that guitar. I wasn’t merely holding an instrument. I was an instrument. I wasn’t alone anymore. I wasn’t lost. I was safe. The heaviness I had been feeling inside dissipated as the music flowed into the room.
Before I knew it, my tears had stopped. I started singing, “I Miss Me*,” a song that had I co-written years before about a bad relationship.
On that day, though, the lyrics were no longer about finding myself after a bad breakup. That day, I was singing to the hopelessness and despair that had settled into my life. I began to feel empowered. I sat up straighter; I felt stronger. I was ready to stand back up again.
As I sang, I was reminded of a very important truth: mental illness is about falling down and, most importantly, standing back up — even when we don’t believe that we can.

At the end of the session, I couldn’t believe that my mood had shifted completely — simply by singing and playing a song. Maybe, I could recover. I thought, as I stood up to walk out of the room.
Fall seven times; get back up eight. Thanks to music, I got back up that day. And, I walked out smiling.
How music affects the brain – with Kathryn Bruno
As you can see from Jenni’s example above, music offers a powerful tool for healing from our emotional and physical struggles. I practice music therapy — an evidence-based use of music (listening to/playing music, singing, and songwriting and more) to promote therapeutic outcomes (including but not limited to decreasing mental health symptoms or promoting self-expression).
Music therapists are certified clinicians who have specific training in how to use music therapeutically in settings like mental health facilities, hospitals, and schools. Even though Jenni did not have a music therapist, playing her song helped immensely in the moment because of the inherent healing properties of music.
Some of those inherent healing properties start at the molecular level. In fact, if you were to see a scan of your brain while listening to music, you would see it light up with activity. Music stimulates almost every region of our brain, leading to some exciting benefits. When you listen to music, your brain does some amazing work. Your brain will:
  • Produce more dopamine, a neurochemical associated with pleasure; this helps us feel good [1]
  • Produce less cortisol, a hormone in our body associated with anxiety; this helps us relax [2]
  • Match body rhythms (like heartbeat and breath) to the pace of the song; when upset, our body rhythms can speed up and become uneven; to calm down emotionally, your body has to physically relax by slowing down your heart rate and stabilizing your breath rate [3] 
Strumming a guitar, or playing any instrument, also releases endorphins in your brain, which helps decrease feelings of stress [4].

How music affects our mental health

Mental illness can leave you feeling powerless and stuck in your thoughts. It can even steal your identity. But there are so many benefits to harnessing the power of music in recovery.
Let’s say, like Jenni, you finally take classes to learn how to play the guitar you bought years ago. After learning just a few chords, you may start to notice the benefits from the healing power of music like:
  • Increased feelings of mastery, control and self-worth
  • Reconnecting with your interests and identity
  • Practicing mindfulness
How music can help you find your voice
Every aspect of music is a form of self-expression. Try it. Open Spotify or iTunes and choose a song that reminds you of how you’re feeling. Listen. Sing if you like. Do the artist’s words depict how you’re feeling? Do they say something that you haven’t yet been able to put into words? If so, you could consider sharing this song with a friend or family member to help them understand how you’re feeling. At times, doing this can be easier than saying the words yourself.
We can find our voice and express our emotions through music because it can feel so familiar and comforting. Sharing songs, writing songs or playing an instrument can help you connect to your inner self or serve as an emotional release or “catharsis.”
Think of Adele’s song “Someone Like You.” The simple, delicate piano accompaniment and angst in her voice conveys her pain without her needing to sing an actual word. Playing and singing with such heart also serves as a physical release of those strong emotions. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to sound like Adele for this to work!)
“Where words fail, music speaks.” – Hans Christian Andersen

Above, Jenni noticed that her mood changed completely in therapy after singing a three-minute song. Jenni shares:
  • “The vibrations of the guitar against my body brought me to a new sense of awareness and being in the room
  • The lyrics provided validation of my feelings and reminded me of my strength
  • The song gave me comfort in its familiarity; I remembered writing it with Annie in Nashville
  • Strumming the guitar reminded me of my ability to grow and learn new things
  • Singing and playing the guitar reconnected me with my passions and my authentic self
  • Having those three minutes to explore music gave me space to connect with my joy, reminding me that mental pain isn’t constant (even when it may often seem that way)
  • Amazingly, the entire experience, albeit brief, recalibrated the neurochemicals in my brain.”
Please don’t underestimate the healing power of music. For more information about music therapy or to find a music therapist in your area, please visit musictherapy.org
I Miss Me*
I don’t know my favorite color
Or where I like to eat
I never call back my mother
Don’t even wanna sing
I stood by your side
I gave up everything
But living your life was killing me                                    
Did you hold me tight so you could feel strong            
Did you think that I could hold my breath for that long
I know you think I miss you
Cry myself to sleep
Doubt that I can make it through
Curse myself and wanna scream
Well if you wanna know the truth I do all those things
But I don’t miss you I miss me                             
You always told me to keep my chin up high
Well I finally got tired of all of your lies and
Looking up at you looking down on me
You can fence me in but you can’t hold down these wings
I know you think I miss you
Cry myself to sleep
Doubt that I can make it through
Curse myself and wanna scream                                   
Well if you wanna know the truth I do all those things
But I don’t miss you I miss me
Oh yeah
I know you think I miss you
Cry myself to sleep                                                      
Doubt that I can make it through                              
Curse myself and wanna scream                                   
Well if you wanna know the truth I do all those things
But I don’t miss you no I don’t miss you                             
I miss me I miss me
Recorded by Jenni Schaefer on her debut album, "phoenix, Tennessee." Written by Jenni Schaefer and Ann Marie Boskovich. © 2010 Hello Me Music (BMI)/Always Annie Songs (BMI).
About the Authors:
Jenni Schaefer is a bestselling author and popular speaker on eating disorders and related disorders, including PTSD
Kathryn Bruno, MT-BC, is a music therapist at the Eating Recovery Center of Ohio. Bruno introduced group and individual music therapy services into the treatment protocol for the patients at ERC Ohio. Bruno has published and presented on the national and local level about music therapy with patients with eating disorders as well as pediatric oncology.
1] Salimpoor, V. N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipating and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience, 14, 257-262.

2] Thoma, M. V., La Marca, R., Brönnimann, R., Finkel, L., Ehlert, U., & Nater, U. M. (2013). The Effect of Music on the Human Stress Response. PLoS ONE8(8), e70156. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0070156
3] Knight, W. E., & Rickard, N. S. (2001). Relaxing music prevents stress-induced increases in subjective anxiety, systolic blood pressure, and heart rate in healthy males and females. Journal of Music Therapy, 38 (4), 254-272. 
4] Dunbar, R.I., Kaskatis, K., MacDonald, I., & Barra, V. (2012). Performance of music elevates pain threshold and positive affect: Implications for the evolutionary function of music. Evolutionary Psychology,10 (4), 688-702.  

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