We are all struggling at the moment. Struggling to get our head around the enormity of the current situation, struggling to find the essentials to feed our families, struggling to educate and occupy our children, struggling to persuade our elderly parents and grandparents to stay safe and much more. Our life is taking on a new normal and for many of us, our mental health is being challenged. When our routine changes we are likely to feel more anxious. When we become anxious our sleep can suffer. When we are isolated we can become depressed. However, I have good news! An inexpensive, safe help is available from something we all have access to - MUSIC!

Dr Daphne Bryan

Dr Daphne Bryan

#1 Listen to music every day

Music has an amazing affect on our bodies and our brains, an effect of which most of us are probably unaware. We feel it relaxing us or lifting our spirits but few of us understand why this happens. With all the technology available now, scientists have been able to watch what happens inside the brain as people listen to music. What they’ve found is that when we listen to music, more of our brain is activated than when we are involved in any other everyday activity. We don’t have to do anything, just listen, and it doesn’t matter if we are musical or think we’re tone deaf, it still happens.

The second amazing thing about music is that our bodies want to synchronize with it. The scientists call this ‘entrainment’. This means that when we listen to music our body will try, for example, to alter our heart rate to match the beat of the music. If we are feeling stressed therefore, we need to choose music with a slow beat to encourage our heart rate to slow so we can feel calmer. Other things happen in our bodies too. When we listen to slow music, cortisol, the hormone produced to respond to stress, is also reduced, blood pressure normalises and breathing slows. Even babies have the mental capacity to be entrained. If your baby needs calming, try singing. It will calm your baby for twice as long as talking.

There are also benefits in listening to slow music before bedtime. Researchers have found that 45 minutes of relaxing music before you go to bed helps you sleep better. And don’t give up if it doesn’t seem to work the first night. They also found that the effect was accumulative and the more nights you listened, the better your sleep became.

Listening to music can help ease depression too. Any music can do this as long as you like it. Some people, rather surprisingly, found that listening to sad music helped them feel happier. Psychologists explain this as the result of ‘social comparison’. The person felt better because the musician being listened to sounded a lot worse! Another reason given is that when we listen to sad music our body releases opiates as it prepares for the traumatic event, which, because it’s only in the music, leaves the listener with a body full of opiates and nothing bad to relieve. Lastly, some people find it difficult to talk about their feelings when sad, but find that listening to sad music can get it off their chests for them.

Those working from home may find that they now have the choice as to whether they have background music on or not and researchers suggest that listening to music can help you focus. Twenty-five years ago, the media was interested in research which suggested that listening to Mozart improved participants’ abilities at cognitive tasks. Further studies since have suggested that not only Mozart can benefit memory, improve IQ scores and arithmetic skills, reading and learning a second language. They found that the music needs to have a fast tempo, be in a major key and not be played too loud. However, if the task is very complex and demanding, adding music can cause brain overload and have a negative effect.

So whether you need calming, uplifting or making happier, or you need help concentrating, listening to appropriate music can help you achieve this.

#2 Sing and don’t care who’s listening

There was a time when, if we wanted to hear music, we made it ourselves, but now, in our modern world, it’s as if we’ve been silenced. We’re shy about singing in public in case we’re laughed at. What’s more, we compare ourselves to the carefully produced recordings of our idols and our lack of confidence plummets even further. Yet singing is very good for us. We need to sing for the good of our brain, our body and our mood and the good news is that you do not have to have a good voice to reap the benefits.

Singing is good for our lungs and breathing, it benefits the heart and the immune system, it improves our mood, and reduces stress and sadness. We’ve already noted that listening to music reduces cortisol levels but if you sing you can decrease cortisol production to an even greater extent. Group singing has also been found to increase oxytocin, nicknamed the ‘love hormone’ because it is released when people cuddle. Oxytocin reduces anxiety and stress. We might think we can’t sing in a group with current restrictions and social distancing but videos from Italy have shown it hasn’t stopped the Italians. They have been singing together from their individual apartment balconies.

Singing is good for snorers too! Snoring happens when muscle tone in the upper airways is lost but singing can help strengthen these muscles. One study recruited people with a history of snoring and sleep apnea and asked them to sing for 20 minutes a day. After three months they found that the frequency and loudness of the participants’ snoring had reduced significantly.

Furthermore, singing can reduce pain. One study monitored endorphin release in their participants. Put simply, endorphins reduce our perception of pain. The study found that singing, together with dancing and drumming triggered endorphin release.

If you’re a little shy about singing then do what I do. Make a playlist of some favourite songs to sing along with, turn the volume up loud, take a deep breath and just sing and don’t care who’s listening!

#3 Hum yourself happy

When I was growing up people used to hum as they went about their everyday work, but it seems to have gone out of fashion. Yet it is so very good for you, both for your mood and for your sinuses. Humming has been found to be very calming. It is used in the yoga meditation practice ‘Omm’, where the ‘mm’ is held for some time on a single note. It’s also been found to reduce depression, with scientists suggesting that it may stimulate the vagus nerve, which sends out electrical signals that switch off key areas of the brain connected with depression.

Humming also increases nitric oxide in the nose. Nitric oxide is believed to be anti-fungal, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial. It’s been found that you can increase the production of nasal nitric oxide by 15 times, just by humming. One study reported how a person with chronic rhinosinusitis managed to significantly reduce his symptoms in just four days by humming long deep pitched notes for an hour a day. Although an hour might be a challenge, I find ten minutes has positive benefits. So bring your lips together and hum, enjoy the pleasant vibration in your face and notice how you soon feel calmer and happier.

#4 Play an instrument, even if you aren’t very good

Just like our attitude to singing, we feel we can only play an instrument if we can do it well or at least show that we are making progress. I often have adult pupils who ask me ‘Am I improving?’ to which I always reply ‘Are you having fun?’! I want them to appreciate that learning an instrument should be more about personal satisfaction than achieving higher levels. The joy should come from the music not exams passed. Learning to play an instrument benefits body, brain and mood whether you play well or not.

Firstly it’s a physical exercise, which can be very useful for people with arthritis or a mobility issue. It is an exercise which provides its own aural feedback to help the player hear whether the movement was correct of not. Secondly it’s an amazing activity for the brain. To translate the symbols on the music, to select the correct physical movements to produce what the symbols suggest, to listen and decide whether the sound is accurate or needs adjusting, and to do all that while maintaining the required rhythm and speed uses multiple areas of the brain simultaneously. Furthermore, scientists have studied the brains of musicians and have found a lot of evidence of neuroplasticity, a term to describe brain changes and the growing of new neural pathways. Thirdly, playing an instrument supplies personal satisfaction and a sense of achievement at every level. It provides an opportunity for self-expression, it offers a distraction, something to fully immerse yourself in when the media stories add to your worries, and it can provide a project at a time when, through self-isolation, some of us are finding we have more time on our hands than usual.

#5 And breathe

Apparently we take a breath between 10–20 times per minute, which adds up to an incredible 15,000 – 30,000 breaths per day. It’s lucky we don’t have to remember to breathe to keep ourselves alive as I’m not sure how successful we would be. When we are tense or worried, however, we breathe more shallowly and more quickly. This in turn will increase feelings of anxiety. To reverse this, we need to take a deep slow breath in and let it out slowly.

Deep breathing as an exercise has many benefits. It slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress and anxiety, and reduces tension, fatigue and depression. It has also been seen to improve vigour and alertness and reduce anger and confusion. This is why many, myself included, spend at least ten minutes a day practising deep breathing. So why not give it a go! You need to breathe in so that your abdomen enlarges, not your upper chest, and you need to breathe in for a slow count of six to eight and out for a similar time. If you make this a daily habit you will soon feel the benefits in a calmer you, whatever is happening around you.

In our normal busy lives, music is all around us, whether we select it or not, in shops, restaurants, lifts etc. For many of us our current situation, be it working from home or self-isolation, gives us more control of what we listen to, and similarly allows us more freedom to sing and hum through our day. So try using music to help your mental equilibrium at this time. Choose music to listen to that helps your mood and your focus, and sing and hum to lift your spirits. Music is easily accessible to most of us with modern technology. It is an inexpensive, safe therapy which mixes with any other medication. So turn up the volume, lose yourself in rhythmic sound and you will soon feel better!

Dr Daphne Bryan is a music psychologist and author of “Music as medicine particularly in Parkinson’s” published on April 21, 2020.