By Jess Szabo | Arts Writer
You know that song—the one that takes you back to a certain day, a beloved place, or a memorable time in your life. Then there’s the one that always picks you up when you’re feeling down, makes you want to dance, or makes you think. And there are probably quite a few that irritate you, make you cry, or make you turn off the radio when they come on.
Every time you react strongly to a song, you are demonstrating something that mental health experts, musicians, and music fans have all known for quite some time; music has a strong, beneficial impact on our mental health. As we celebrate May as Mental Health Month, let’s look at some of the ways music can help improve our emotional well-being.
Music can Immediately Alter our Mood
Music is processed by the amygdala. This is the part of our brain involved in mood and emotion. When we listen to the music we like, this part of our brain produces a chemical known as dopamine. Dopamine works with other brain chemicals to produce feelings of happiness, contentment, and joy. This puts listening to music in the same category as eating healthy food and taking a walk outdoors in nice weather.
Listening to Music is a Great Motivator
In addition to boosting mood, dopamine also plays a part in motivation. This is why putting on some music while you work can help you complete tedious tasks such as cleaning your house, balancing your bank accounts, or doing paperwork for school or work that you do not truly feel like doing.
Your favorite music will also serve as a mild distraction. When you add music to a boring task, you’re no longer focused entirely on that boring task, but also on the enjoyable task of listening to music you enjoy.
Stress Levels are Reduced by Listening to Music
Reasonable amounts of stress push us to get things done. The due date or deadline of a project at work causes a bit of stress that pushes you to do the work you need to do to keep your job or your client. Too much stress can lead to the opposite experience, a feeling of being overwhelmed, frozen, or stuck. This occurs when levels of cortisol, the hormone responsible for signaling alarm in your brain, stays too high after whatever you should have been alarmed about has passed. Listening to music helps reduce cortisol. It can also serve as a mild distraction from whatever is causing the excessive stress. As with a boring situation, you focus on the song you’re listening to, rather than devoting all of your attention to the stressful situation.
Anxiety and Depression Can be at Least Partly Alleviated with Music
Depression and chronic, severe forms of anxiety are serious mental health issues. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression or an anxiety disorder, please seek professional treatment in addition to using everyday coping strategies. But music can certainly be one of those coping strategies. Steadily listening to music will have the same regular impact as the instant mood boost of putting on a single song or album. Similarly, regularly listening to music will reduce anxiety just as it reduces stress in the short term.
Choosing Music that Addresses or Brings to Mind Difficult or Uncomfortable Issues can Help you Cope with Those Issues
We all know about listening to breakup songs when experiencing heartbreak and turning the love songs back on when we find love again. But while this sounds obvious, even cliched, it touches on an important function of music that can be applied to a wide variety of situations.
Selecting a song with lyrics that talk about whatever you’re going through can serve as an outlet for whatever issue you’re grappling with, by generating ideas, offering a different perspective, and/or providing an outlet. It isn’t even necessary to find a song that was actually written about the issue. Most of us have had the experience of a song seeming to speak to us about something we’re going through, only to later learn the song’s author wrote it about something else entirely.
The Right Music can Boost Confidence
The chemical explanation for this is pretty much the same as the ones for the reduced stress and anxiety, and elevation of mood in the short and long term described above. And just as selecting songs that address difficult or unpleasant issues can help you cope with problems, choosing songs about things you aspire to be, or that reflect the way you see yourself or want to see yourself can provide a boost of confidence. Many people adopt a personal “theme song” for this purpose.
Music can Help Encourage Empathy and Behaviors that Serve Others
Regardless of what our culture as a whole may promote today, focusing excessively on ourselves is not healthy “self-care,” but narcissism. We need to think a little less about ourselves, a little more about the impact our words and actions have on other people. Music can help with this, both through creating the shared experience of being at a concert, festival, club, cafe, or other shared space together to share in the experience, and through exposing oneself to perspectives and experiences outside of one’s own life.
This is not to suggest that listening to music, or any other everyday activity, can alone cure a mental illness. Anyone who is experiencing symptoms of any serious mental illness is encouraged to seek professional help from a licensed therapist in the Utica area, or call 911 in a mental health emergency. But music can be an important part of improving and maintaining our mental health this May and throughout the year.