Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) afflicts millions of adults and children around the world. Although it is typically associated with combat veterans, it also afflicts survivors of violence, such as child abuse, rape, and terrorism. Symptoms are typically grouped into three categories: reliving the trauma, avoidance, and hyper-arousal. Each of these uniquely challenges treatment of PTSD. Reliving the trauma might include nightmares, flashbacks, and hallucinations whereas avoidance often prevents sufferers from seeking treatment. Hyper-arousal can cause increased states of alert, angry outbursts, and sleepless nights. Though symptoms vary in their severity, PTSD negatively impacts multiple aspects of a person’s life. It is as difficult to live with as it is to face head on.
As an expressive art form, music provides lessons in how we can help patients face these challenges. Through studies and anecdotal evidence, music is associated with a reduction in PTSD symptoms, decreased depression and anxiety, and an improvement in emotional stability. The effect of music on PTSD patients is often more profound than a simple correlation.
Music provides these individuals with a sense of safety and security by providing predictable patterns, and soothing sensations. The resultant feelings of safety are essential before any healing is possible. From there, they have a channel for their unresolved emotions, which is the highlight of the healing process. Through music, the individuals also regain their feelings of control over their surroundings, their experiences, their lives and their body. This empowerment is another major cornerstone to healing from traumatic experiences. Traumatic experiences can also damage a person’s self-esteem. Learning a new complex skill is one of the hallmark recommendations for increasing self-worth. These factors make music lessons a perfect fit, especially when you couple it with the added therapeutic effects.
To illustrate how this works, imagine a survivor of childhood violence. She suffers from PTSD with symptoms of avoidance, emotional numbness, and physical numbing of her extremities. Traditional therapeutic approaches is not helpful because of her avoidance. Now, imagine her at the keys of a piano. She has enough skills on the piano to channel emotions through the keys. In this scenario, the piano provides a controlled outlet for the intense emotions that are too difficult to face head on. She controls what music she plays. She directs her hands and feet to do what she wants them to do and in doing so, regains vital feelings of control over her surroundings and person. Additionally, her self-esteem grows in leaps and bounds and she masters a new skill. All of this subconsciously challenges her traumatic experiences without forcing her to talk about it. It helps to change her malformed beliefs. And not only does it not require her to abandon her comfort zone, it reinforces and expands her comfort zone.
Singing has some added physiological benefits over other music lessons. Singing promotes deep breathing, which reduces symptoms of hyper arousal like increased heart rate and anger. Signing may also allow for more visceral expression. You can only strum a guitar so forcefully, but you can “your heart out”. Some researchers have suggested that the emotional energy released while singing helps zap the physical and emotional numbness that so often accompanies PTSD. Both of these factors enhance the sense of personal control as well; perhaps more so than playing piano or guitar might.
Nonetheless, instruments are not to be overlooked. In the United States, the Department of Veteran Affairs studied how playing guitar impacted veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Their rationale was that many veterans are reluctant to seek or stick to conventional mental health therapies. In coordination with a U.S. not-for-profit organization, Guitars for Vets, they provided guitars and lessons as a supplement to therapy and medication that they had already been receiving. At the end of the study, they documented a 21% improvement in PTSD symptoms and a 27% decrease in related depression symptoms. The study attributed learning and playing guitar as the primary catalyst for these improvements.
As with most mental afflictions, there is no magic pill or silver bullet for PTSD. Certainly music is not an all-inclusive approach to resolving traumatic events. However, music lessons provide an essential outlet that empowers these individuals and is tied to a quicker recovery. Music helps develop the essential foundation to healing by providing a non-confrontational emotional outlet, enhancing their confidence, and increasing their ability to control their surroundings and selves.
Article by Torva Logan
Music Therapy in Response to Crisis and Trauma and Music Therapy and Mental Health from the AMTA.
Music Therapy With Traumatized Refugees in a Clinical Setting from The School for a Culture of Peace.
Guitars for Vets: Evaluating Psychological Outcome of a Novel Music Therapy by Timothy R. Dillingham, MD, MS.
How Art Therapy Supports Trauma Recovery by Douglas Mitchell, MFTI.