A relationship between music and trauma isn’t a foreign concept. Even without knowing anything about the science, most people have an intuition about the bidirectional relationship between music and trauma. Studies show that musicians are three times more likely to suffer from depression than non-musicians.
Moreover, music can be used as a therapeutic tool for people suffering from trauma. A number of studies have investigated the utility of using music in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, and findings show positive results.
However, it isn’t always straightforward, and music can also lead to traumatic triggers. This may be especially true for highly empathic people who are generally more sensitive. Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between music and trauma and how music can be used as a therapeutic tool for overcoming past trauma.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma happens when a person is exposed to a distressing or life-threatening episode or series of events. This has long-term negative consequences for their mental, physical, social, emotional and/or spiritual well-being. Statistics show that 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.
Examples of traumatic experiences include:
- Physical, sexual and emotional abuse
- Childhood neglect
- Mental illness in the family
- Unsolicited separation from a loved one
- Extreme poverty
- Racism and oppression
- Community violence
- Witnessing gruesome accidents or natural disasters
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an emotional reaction to a traumatic incident. Trauma can happen once or several times, and a person might be exposed to more than one sort of trauma. PTSD is a mental health condition that occurs when someone is exposed to or witnesses a traumatic event.
Music, Empathy and Trauma
According to Zachery Wallmark, a researcher at Southern Methodist University, music is processed by the same neural mechanism as empathy and other social tasks. He says music likely “piggybacked” upon the neural networks that developed to help us navigate our social world.
Music can also trigger trauma responses in people. Whether it’s because a particular song or type of music is linked to a traumatic event or because emotions elicited by music are deeply felt by empathic people, it can be a trigger.
Can Music Trigger PTSD?
Re-experiencing trauma often occurs when an individual is exposed to something they associate with the traumatic episode or events they’ve experienced. For example, if someone was physically abused by a person who listened to or always talked about a certain genre of music, hearing that music may remind them of their abuser.
Music can be particularly triggering because it activates emotion and stress-related areas of the brain, including the amygdala and HPA-axis. It also activates the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory encoding, storage and retrieval.
Music in Healing and Recovery
Music therapy is a therapeutic technique that aims to improve people’s mental health and overall well-being by utilizing music’s intrinsically mood-boosting effects. Music therapy can involve listening to music, making music and discussing music. There are several types of music therapy, including:
- CBMT (cognitive behavioral music therapy). A treatment that combines cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and music. Music is utilized in CBMT to reinforce and change certain behaviors.
- Community music therapy. A type of music therapy that focuses on utilizing music to help people change in their communities. It’s done in a group environment and necessitates a high level of participation from each participant.
- Nordoff-Robbins music therapy, Also known as “creative music therapy,” this entails the patient playing one instrument (usually a cymbal or drum) while the therapist plays another. Music is used in the improvisational process to aid in self-expression.
Music therapy can benefit people with a wide range of disorders, including depression, chronic pain, impulsivity, substance use disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. Music therapy has shown to improve functioning in people with PTSD by modifying social, cognitive and neural mechanisms. It encourages community building and emotional regulation and increases feelings of pleasure.
Music Therapy for Traumatized Children
School-aged children (aged 5-12) have different reactions to trauma than adults. Their most common symptoms are predictable and well-documented. Children who’ve been traumatized are less likely than adults to suffer flashbacks or memory gaps, but they are as prone to hypervigilance. Music therapy for children can help reduce anxiety, help them better cope with psychological triggers and encourage them to verbalize thoughts and feelings.
The Effects Are Moderated By Personality
While music therapy sounds like a given, there are some caveats. Aside from being potentially triggering, individual differences in personality can determine how receptive someone is to music therapy and thus how much it works. People who are less open-minded may not respond as well to music therapy interventions. Those who are high in trait neuroticism and have a tendency to ruminate also benefit less from music therapy.
So, while music therapy has been shown to be an effective treatment for trauma and general healing, this positive effect may only be available for certain kinds of people.
The Influence of Trauma on Musicians
The link between music and trauma doesn’t only go one way. There’s also an uncanny number of musicians who’ve experienced traumatic lives. We all know of many musicians who come from traumatic backgrounds. Their harrowing life struggles are often what give rise to their deeply meaningful and pain-filled music.
Artists like Lou Reed, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain are known for their connection between their traumatic lives and their musical prowess. Did they turn to music as a coping mechanism for their pain? Is there something about experiencing trauma that leads people to be more attracted to emotionally stimulating music?
Learning More About Music Therapy
While research has made plenty of headway, there’s still much to learn about the deep relationship between music and PTSD or trauma.
Music therapy is an evidence-based treatment for a number of illnesses, including heart disease, depression, autistic spectrum disorder, substance use disorder and PTSD. It can aid with memory, blood pressure, coping, stress reduction and self-esteem, among other things. You don’t need any musical experience to take part.
If you’re suffering from PTSD and finding it difficult to cope, reach out to Restore Mental Health. Our team of therapists and psychological professionals is just a phone call away. Contact us now at (877) 594-3566.