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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Thomas

Music Therapy and Anxiety

Our world is a stressful one, there's no doubt about that. As our world has gotten busier, more advanced, more convenient and more knowledgeable, we have also seen a massive increase in the instances of mental health disorders and stress-related diseases. Anxiety is among these outcomes.

There's no question that anxiety has been on the rise over the last decade or so, and Beyond Blue even states that 1 in 4 Australians will experience an anxiety condition at some point in their life. That's huge! With this ever-increasing anxiety problem, it's more important that ever to know the signs of anxiety and what you can do to overcome it.

What is anxiety?

Firstly, what's the difference between an anxiety condition and just normal anxiety? Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time, and it's a completely normal feeling to have. Instances of anxiety happen to everyone, and usually last for a brief amount of time before subsiding when the trigger for the anxiety has gone away. For example, it's normal to feel anxious before going in for a job interview, or before giving a speech, but in these instances the anxious feelings would likely die down after the event or over the next few hours. When anxiety becomes a condition, the sufferer will feel anxious or nervous most or all of time, sometimes for no discernible reason. This constant on-edge feeling can have a detrimental impact on daily life and can cause the sufferer to withdraw from their normal routines and people around them as they try to deal with their anxiety.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

The symptoms of anxiety are hard to define to a short list, as anxiety affects each person differently. Some people have more physical symptoms, while others may feel more mentally burdened. Some of these symptoms have an immediate onset, while others are more long-term symptoms. So while I have tried to list as many symptoms of anxiety as possible, there are definitely more than what I have included.

Physical symptoms:

  • pounding heart

  • shortness of breath

  • shakiness/trembling

  • headaches

  • muscle tension or pain

  • digestive issues

  • insomnia

  • increased sweating

  • restlessness/inability to sit still

  • hot flushes

  • hair loss

  • fatigue

  • dry mouth

Mental symptoms:

  • inability to concentrate on anything other than anxiety/the trigger for anxiety

  • over thinking

  • racing thoughts

  • hyper alertness/hypervigilance

  • irritability

  • feelings of dread or impending doom

  • avoidance of things or situations that trigger anxiety

  • constant worrying

  • obsessive thoughts

Like I said, this is not an exhaustive list of symptoms and these will vary from person to person, but you can probably get an idea from the above lists about just how much anxiety can affect the day-to-day functioning of someone living with it. This disruption of daily functioning can have a massive effect on the way people lead their lives, and which activities of normal life they are able to partake in, potentially affecting work, social engagement or any number of other things.

There are many kinds of anxiety, including generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder. I will be mostly referring to generalised anxiety disorder in this post, as this is the most commonly occurring disorder. We've had a look now at how anxiety can affect the body and the mind, but let's now take a closer look at how anxiety actually affects the brain itself.

How does anxiety affect the brain?

When the brain suspects danger, it immediately activates fight-or-flight mode - our natural instinct to defend ourselves and preserve life. When fight-or-flight kicks in, the brain and central nervous system are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones act to put your body in high-alert, sending blood to your muscles, heightening your senses and taking blood away from areas such as your digestive system until the perceived threat is neutralised. This is all well and good when there is an actual threat, such as a lion chasing you, but when this alert is triggered in day-to-day life, such as before a big presentation or in an intimidating social situation it can be a little over the top. However, this response will usually subside and your body will return to it's normal functioning. For someone with an anxiety disorder, this fight-or-flight mode can be triggered near-constantly, meaning that their body remains on high alert, and levels of adrenaline and cortisol are elevated constantly. Over time, this can lead to health complications such as digestive issues, chronic pain, heart disease, decreased immune system function and more.

Additionally, anxiety can make the brain very sensitive to threats, and can actually cause the amygdala (the part of your brain that senses danger and alerts the body to it) to get larger and send danger alerts to the rest of the brain when there is no threat present, like a false alarm. Anxiety can also affect reasoning, causing the communication between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex to be lessened. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of your brain where executive functions happen, such as reasoning, logic, and decision making. If this part of your brain is no longer being communicated with when the amygdala fires off it's fight-or-flight response, it becomes harder for the person to de-escalate their anxiety and reason their way out of it.

How can anxiety be managed?

While all these symptoms and effects of anxiety can sound quite scary and difficult to manage, there are many ways that someone struggling with anxiety can overcome it. There are a lot of self-care strategies that can be very effective in managing and decreasing your anxiety. These can include:

  • Meditation

  • Mindfulness

  • Getting enough sleep

  • Getting enough exercise

  • Eating a healthy diet

  • Limiting caffeine

  • Breathing exercises

  • Journaling

  • Spending time with loved ones

When anxiety becomes a hindrance to your daily life, or you feel you can no longer manage it on your own it may be time to seek professional help. Many health professionals can be helpful in your mental health journey, so talking to your GP about your options can be a good way to start.

How can music therapy help with anxiety?

When we think therapy, we usually think of traditional talk therapies, which can be very effective for dealing with mental health issues like anxiety. Music therapy is another option that can be very helpful and can have a very beneficial effect in the life of someone struggling with anxiety. Music has many effects on the body and the brain, many of which are very helpful in soothing anxiety symptoms.

Firstly, the tempo and rhythm of music is able to stabilise and reduce the heart rate and breathing rate, when used correctly. This slowing of the heart rate and breathing can 'switch off' the body's fight-or-flight response, stopping the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol and put the body back into a state of calm. In addition to this, engaging in music can also trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, which is the feel-good or reward hormone. This causes feelings of happiness and relaxation, which can be very helpful in reducing anxiety symptoms and counteracting the stress hormones present.

On an emotional level, music can support someone suffering from anxiety to express their anxious emotions in a healthy way that allows for release and reprieve from the feelings of anxiety. Sometimes, talking about what makes people anxious can re-trigger anxiety and the opportunity to work through anxious feelings in another medium, such as music, is a welcome relief. Music also has inherently emotional qualities, including lyrics, timbre and tone of instruments. All of these qualities can add up to create a relaxing or soothing effect on someone's anxiety.

All these benefits listed so far are purely created by music alone - that is listening to it, playing it or creating your own. So why music therapy then? Listening to music alone may briefly cause a reduction in anxiety, but that isn't where it should stop. Working through anxiety and the habits and patterns that lead to anxiety is important as it can help to work through the underlying reasons for anxiety. In addition to this, working through the reasons for anxiety can also help guide you in how to create habits and strategies to not only minimise anxiety, but avoid it altogether. Music therapy can help in all of these areas as we can use many musical interventions to delve deeper into the reasons for your anxiety, as well as create musical strategies to deal with the effects of your anxiety, which can then transfer into your non-musical life as well. These interventions can include songwriting, instrumental improvisation of emotional states, guided imagery through music, song sharing, mindfulness through music and more.

However, the most important part of music therapy as opposed to engaging in music on your own is the therapeutic relationship between client and therapist. A music therapist is able to guide you in your mental health journey, and is able to use musical interventions in a way that will target your goals and support you in your recovery. When musical interventions are used incorrectly, they can sometimes do more harm than good, so it's important that you go to a music therapist who is registered with the Australian Music Therapy Association, as this means that you are dealing with an actual health care professional who is qualified to help you in your mental health journey.

I hope this brief summary of anxiety and it's effects has been informative, and I hope that some of the strategies mentioned will help you in your anxiety journey. If you need help managing your anxiety, reach out today and we can discuss how music therapy can help. Alternatively, contact your GP to discuss your options and get started on your mental health journey today.

Thanks again for reading, and if you'd like to learn more about music therapy, please consider subscribing to the blog, as well as following Thrive on Instagram for more information.

Until next time,


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