How do you cope with stress? If your answer involves listening to music, you’re not alone. In the 2012 Stress in America survey, conducted by the American Psychological Association, 59% of Millennial respondents, as well as sizeable percentages of the Generation X and Baby Boomer cohorts, said they like to listen to music for stress reduction.[i] Today we’ll explore why so many of us turn to music to feel more relaxed.
I began to research the relationship between music and stress several weeks ago when I spoke with Dr. Bruce Rabin, Medical Director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Healthy Lifestyle Program. Dr. Rabin has written that “stress results when something that happens to you or something that you observe exceeds the capability of your mind to deal with the event effectively.”[ii] Stress activates certain areas of the brain that cause stress hormones to accumulate in the bloodstream, and if left unchecked, it can result in a number of physical and mental consequences, including higher blood pressure, problems focusing, and a greater susceptibility to illness.[iii]
While stress can lead to some negative, potentially long-term effects, you can manage it with coping strategies, such as listening to, playing, or writing music. Music often helps alleviate stress because of its ability to capture our attention and distract us so that we stop focusing on our problems.[iv] According to Dr. Rabin, “If you enjoy the music, the happiness that comes with that will cause certain areas of the brain to decrease in activity. When these areas decrease in activity they lower the concentrations of cortisol, norepinephrine, and other stress hormones in the blood. You can think more clearly, focus, and become more calm.”[v]
While putting on some headphones may help many stressed out people at home or work, sometimes music alone cannot mitigate stress to a manageable level. In situations such as these, you can work with a music therapist, and the combined effectiveness of relaxing music and the therapeutic relationship can lead to noticeable results, like a decreased perception of pain and calmer demeanor.[vi] (For more on this, check back next week to learn about the stress-reducing work of music therapists at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.)
Whether working on your own or collaborating with a music therapist, the key to successfully using music for stress relief is to choose music you enjoy. A literature review published last year states that, “Underlying personality dimensions are factors that mediate physiological stress responses to music. This is consistent with an emerging literature which suggests that individual differences in personality and cognitive traits influence psychological and physiological responses to different types of music.”[vii] Therefore, if you don’t like the music you’re hearing, it may actually increase your irritation or anxiety.
Dr. Rabin concurs. He says, “The key to music therapy or music helping people is that it has to be music that they enjoy. It has to be whatever a person finds to be relaxing and is comfortable with. There are no other guidelines.”[viii] So, I can’t offer any general suggestions about what characteristics to look for when choosing music for stress relief. I can only advise you to choose music that you find calming.
On that note, if you have any particular pieces that you find especially relaxing, please share them with us! You never know if other blog readers (or this blogger) might benefit from listening to the same music that puts you at ease. In two weeks, we’ll share some of our favorite relaxing music as well. Until then, we look forward to hearing about your favorite music!
[i] “Stress in America: Missing the Health Care Connection.” American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association, 7 Feb. 2013. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.
[ii] Rabin, Bruce S. Coping with Stress for Health and Wellness: The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Healthy Lifestyle Program. Print.
[iv] Rabin, Bruce. Personal interview. 16 Jan. 2014.
[vi] Rabin, Bruce. Personal interview. 16 Jan. 2014.
[vii] Chanda, Mona Lisa and Daniel J. Levitin. “The neurochemistry of music.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17.4 (2013) : 170-193. Web. 6 Jan. 2014.
[viii] Rabin, Bruce. Personal interview. 16 Jan. 2014.