Benefits of Music Therapy for Addiction and Recovery

Diseases are very unique entities. Some diseases are physical while others are psychological. One disease might render a person unable to care for him or herself while another would allow an individual to continue living life almost as if the disease wasn’t there. It wasn’t long ago that addiction was widely believed to be a moral affliction, evidence of an individual’s being willfully selfish and self-destructive, or even just merely being a bad person.

With the benefit of advanced and continuous research, we’ve come to understand that addiction is a disease; however, unlike most other diseases that are either physical or psychological, addiction is a disease that’s at once both physical and psychological, which makes it an incredibly complicated affliction that is exceedingly difficult to overcome without an effective treatment regimen.

In addition to being a complicated disease in and of itself, the development of an addiction to alcohol or drugs — or even a diverse number of different behaviors — is likewise a complicated process that can happen in many different ways. For instance, a person can become addicted as a result of having been exposed to or witnessed substance abuse during his or her childhood, indicating that it can be a learned behavior. Alternately, it’s been found that addiction can run in families much like many other types of health conditions, indicating a genetic or biological basis as well. Additionally, a big part of it has to do with one’s personal choice and development; after all, an individual couldn’t possibly become addicted if he or she simply refused to consume alcohol or drugs.

Being such a complicated, almost enigmatic disease, there are a variety of different methods available to treat addiction. There are numerous self-help and twelve-step groups, inpatient or residential rehabs, outpatient treatments, counseling and therapy, faith-based programs, and so on. What’s more, there are also a number of complementary, supplemental, and holistic treatments that are increasingly applied to the treatment of addiction, sometimes to great effect. Music therapy is one such complement that has shown a wide range of applications, including the treatment of mental disorders and substance abuse. Therefore, the following will serve as a concise overview of what music can offer to individuals suffering from addiction or who are in recovery.

Does music in recovery have therapeutic value?

Listening to music in recovery can be an incredibly powerful experience. Without even realizing it, we often attach certain songs or types of music with our experiences, recording those subconscious associations in our memory until such a time that something recalls one of those memories. In fact, our senses of hearing and scent are the most atavistic of our five senses, meaning that certain sounds and smells are the most effective types of stimulation that can inspire us to recall particular experiences and memories.

Another way of putting it would be to say that sounds and smells are most easily attached to memory, even more so than taste, sight, and our sense of touch. Music is especially stimulating as it tends to be memorable by nature. An individual can hear a catchy song and still remember the melody decades later, which reinforces the idea that music can have a major effect on one’s cognition, which refers to thoughts, moods, emotions, attitudes, and so on.

In relatively recent years, researchers have identified a number of ways in which music can offer therapeutic value. The initial idea was that, since music can evoke powerful emotions — slow, melancholic songs can make people feel extremely sad while upbeat, faster-paced songs can make people feel happy — it might be possible for listening to music to improve the cognitive recall of individuals suffering from dementia and other memory-related disorders. Similarly, music therapy has been used to stimulate individuals into expressing a variety of emotions. More specifically, the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) defines music therapy as a professional’s use of music to help address the physical, emotional, social, and cognitive needs of their patients.

Music therapy & substance abuse

Although music therapy is not advised to be used as the primary or sole form of substance abuse treatment, there is increasing evidence in support of music therapy as a complement to one’s core substance abuse treatments, such as psychotherapy and relapse prevention groups. For instance, one study that employed the use of drums specifically and involved encouraging a group of patients to engage with the drums found that it encouraged creativity, helped individuals to develop or hone their senses of rhythm, and fostered a sense of community among the group members.

However, music in recovery can be utilized in a number of other ways, both in group settings or individually. There’s been a lot of evidence to suggest that playing certain types of music — classical music, New Age instrumental, smooth jazz, and so on — often offers a pronounced calming effect, which can be extremely helpful to individuals who are in need of strategies for preventing relapse. Alternatively, music can be used as a form of expression such as liberating unexpressed emotions or using music to simply convey how one is feeling; this can be achieved in different ways, including playing music in recovery with actual instruments or creating digital playlists that capture one’s intended feeling.

The physiological effects of music

Individuals respond to music in more ways than just foot-tapping. In terms of physiological response to music, it’s been found that slow music relaxes listeners, causing them to breathe much slower and a significant decrease in heart rate. However, the brain responds to music with a release of endorphins, which is seen as being the reason why music elevates one’s mood and tends to have the effect of alleviating pain due to injury or health conditions.

It’s often recommended that individuals with high blood pressure listen to music in the mornings as the music will calm them and help to keep their blood pressure lower for the remainder of the day; in fact, a study found that listening to only 30 minutes of classical music each day substantially reduced the symptoms experienced by individuals who had been diagnosed with chronic high blood pressure. Listening to music regularly has also recently been associated with a decrease in the frequency of headaches and migraines, an increase in the speed of healing, and even a decrease in the frequency of epileptic seizures in individuals who suffered from epilepsy.

Utilizing music in the recovery process

In addition to being to utilize music in recovery, music can also be a major part of one’s continuing recovery and a great tool for sustaining sobriety. Many individuals who play instruments find the activity to be very therapeutic, a great outlet for expressing one’s emotions, blowing off steam related to stress, or even as a means of relaxation. However, this effect can also be achieved by playing music on a stereo, computer, or portable media device if an individual has no interest in learning an instrument. Since statistics show that many of the cravings individuals have — whether for alcohol, drugs, food, cigarettes, or otherwise – and which put individuals at risk of relapse only last between five and ten minutes, listening to a single song is an effective way to avoid allowing a craving to turn into a relapse.

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