Music Relaxes: Stress, Anxiety, & Pain

Aug 9, 2023

“Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.” Those words were written by playwright William Congreve around the turn of the eighteenth century. He may not have known it at the time, but sometimes the savage beast that needs soothing is our own fragile psyches. In today’s fast paced world, most of us are facing stresses that Mr. Congreve couldn’t have possibly imagined. But luckily for us, Congreve’s words have become more and more true over the centuries. Modern medical and psychological research has found that playing and listening to music can have a profound impact on an individual’s stress levels, anxiety, and even the perception of physical pain. Here’s how music relaxes us.

Music Relaxes Stress

Music’s link to human emotions is unique and well known. As such, it can be a powerful and effective stress management tool. Just listening to music can have a profound impact on our minds and bodies; especially slow, quiet, classical music. This type of music works on us on a physiological level, slowing the pulse and heart rate, decreasing blood pressure, and even lowering level of cortisol; the principle “stress hormone.”

But as this slow, relaxing music works on our bodies, it can also take our attention. It acts as a distraction, while also working to help us explore our emotions. This makes it a perfect tool for meditation, as it helps to prevent the mind from wandering too far.

Everyone, of course, has their own musical preferences. If classical isn’t up your alley, that’s okay: you can decide for yourself which genres or specific songs are suitable for your own varied moods. That being said, give classical a try, you may find it works quite well even if you’re not a big fan.

That said, many people don’t think to find relief in music when at their most stressed. Maybe people feel like it’s a waste of time when they could be focusing on their stressors. But we know that music can help with productivity too! It only takes a small bit of effort to reap the rewards. Try fitting music into your everyday life in small ways: play a CD during your commute; listen while taking the dog for a walk; put on the radio while you shower. You may just feel the stress evaporate!

Music Relaxes Anxiety

Anxiety is something everyone has to deal with, some unfortunately more than others. It can cause feelings of worry, panic, apprehension, and even depression. Those who suffer from anxiety must also deal with a lot of the same physiological effects as stress: increased heart rate and blood pressure; muscle tension; and increased levels of that stress hormone cortisol. Clearly, there is a lot of overlap between “stress” and “anxiety,” but there are a few distinct differences as well.

For example, while classical music is most often recommended for reducing general stress levels, studies have suggested that for dealing with anxiety it’s best to listen to music you like. Participants in one study used words like “peaceful,” “serenity,” “sadness,” and “joy” to label the music they found most relaxing. The researchers interpreted this to mean that music used to fight anxiety should not only create a relaxed state, but also incite feelings that are associated with “increased arousal.” Basically, something that makes you feel good. For a great many people, this means soft, classical music. But for others, it might mean a driving bass-line and screamed vocals. It’s all about your own preferences.

What’s more, music reduces anxiety in hospital patients awaiting treatment. While music therapy cannot treat ailments on its own, it has been proven effective in alleviating some of the anxiety that comes from the anticipation of pain. Most patients undergoing more intense procedures are given some form of medication to combat anxiety, but they don’t always fully work. This is perhaps because they work on the body, and leave the mind unaffected. Music, however, engages and distracts our minds, working above and beyond medications.

Music Relaxes Pain

Pain, defined by the International Association for the Study of Pain, is “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.” What is interesting thing about pain is that it is a sensory process that is felt by the body, as well as a subjective phenomenon that in influenced by the emotions and psychologically of each person. That means that we all experience pain a little different,. What’s more, your state of mind can change how you perceive pain.

When you encounter something painful, like stubbing your toe on the coffee table, an electrochemical signal travels from your toe, up your spinal cord, and into your brain. There a number of different things happen, mostly resulting in the “Ouch!”

But brain scans have shown that listening to pleasant music increases activity in the brain’s reward centre. This triggers the release of dopamine. Dopamine is very strongly associated with other things we find rewarding. Many researchers think this reward centre response is one of the ways music helps alleviate pain.

Another factor of music’s pain controlling abilities comes from the one of the very same characteristics that allows music to help with stress and anxiety: it’s a distraction. If you’re thinking about something else, instead of your pain, you feel less pain. It doesn’t really matter what it is you’re thinking about, but music can be extremely engaging. One study, performed by psychologist David Bradshaw, found that a group of non-musicians who were asked to listen for errors in a musical passage felt less pain from small electric shocks than a group who were listening passively.

Final Thoughts

All three of these unpleasant experiences share a lot in common, and usually go hand in hand with one another. Music can act as a tool to help fight against each of them by themselves, or all together at once.

Want to ease your own stress and anxiety with a dose of music making? Check out the programs at The Music Studio and sign up today! It’s never too early or too late to start!