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Music Therapy & Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

It’s no question that the number of people who experience anxiety, either intermittently, or chronically, has drastically increased over the past few years.

In terms of the cause, our minds may instantly look to COVID-19, and the turbulence caused by the pandemic, however, several factors could be responsible for this increase. People often have difficulty identifying what causes their anxiety, and, as a result, finding treatments and/or support can be difficult. It is possible that people who experience anxiety for a prolonged period of time may have something called Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). 

Whether or not anxiety is acute or chronic, it comes with many deeply rooted challenges that can interfere with our levels of functioning and can make simple, once enjoyable tasks, seem suddenly impossible. According to Anxiety Canada (2022), GAD is characterized by excessive, uncontrollable worrying that may result in decreased ability to perform daily tasks. Stressing and worrying about what might happen every day can cause not only mental and emotional distress but also moderate to severe physical symptoms. It is important to note that the distinction between GAD and occasional anxiety is that GAD likely stems from a person’s childhood, and can severely disrupt our functioning. Experiencing levels of anxiety during stressful situations is considered normal, however, those with GAD are likely to experience some level of anxiety every day and have a broad range of worries that apply to many situations in life.    

My experience as a Music Therapist has shown that music is effective in treating GAD. As a person who has studied GAD at length, I have learned that this condition can take shape in a person in many different ways. A few examples are perfectionism, reassurance seeking, planning ahead, second guessing, and an obsessive need for control. So how does music fit in? Music therapy is a fantastic resource, however, not everyone may have access to this service. Therefore, below are some ways you can incorporate music into your daily routine to help manage anxiety on your own. Besides offering refuge from daily life in many ways, music can also be a source of structure, dependability, and encouragement. I have learned that a person with GAD can benefit greatly from routine, and knowing what’s to come whenever possible. This type of control can help minimize both physical symptoms, and feelings of worry. We all know that we cannot possibly have control over every aspect of life, and we must make room for the unexpected. This requires flexibility, which can sometimes seem impossible to someone recovering from GAD. Here are a few ways music can help you at home in providing structure, self-expression, and relaxation:

Listening to Music in the Morning

Create a playlist with familiar/comforting songs to listen to everyday during your morning routine.  Routine is crucial for anxious individuals as it provides a sense of structure and predictability, helping to alleviate anxiety by creating a stable and familiar environment. As well as providing this structure, studies show that music can also induce endorphins, and increase dopamine in our brain, which subsequently can make us feel happy and energized (2021).  If worry, panic, and dread are feelings that tend to set in first thing in the morning, listening to music when you wake up can help decrease intrusive thoughts before you start your day. If we’re listening to songs that we know very well, we can feel that sense of dependability in knowing what’s coming next. 

Playing a Drum Along to a Familiar Pre-Recorded Song

For this intervention, it doesn’t have to be a drum as any percussive instrument that you’re drawn to can have positive effects. In times of anxiety, it can be difficult to communicate, or verbalize what we need. If we can’t find the words, using an instrument can be a way to express ourselves non-verbally, and allow us to release some of the emotions from under the surface. Because music is something that activates such a large part of our brain, playing a drum along to pre-recorded music while experiencing anxiety can help to distract our amygdala, the part of our brain that is responsible for fear and anxiety (2018). Playing an instrument along with the music can help prevent idle hands, and can also help us entrain to the rhythm of the music. This entrainment can help minimize anxious thoughts by regulating our nervous systems and decreasing our blood pressure (2021). 

Evening Music Listening – Songs with a Slow Tempo 

Using music to enhance relaxation can help prepare us for restful sleep. Listening to music with slower tempos, and soft melodies can do just that. Whether you prefer to listen to music while you get ready for bed, or while you’re actively trying to fall asleep, it can be beneficial to practice deep breathing, stretching, or slow movement while listening. This mindfulness can help to focus on the task at hand, keep your mind from wandering to worrisome thoughts, and slow your heart rate. 

Movement to Music 

The power of movement to music cannot be overstated when it comes to minimizing anxiety. According to a recent article from Health Line, shaking our bodies i.e our arms, legs, head, and hips, can help us to release muscular tension, and excess adrenaline that can build up when we’re having an anxiety/panic attack (Kubala 2022). When we surrender ourselves to the rhythm and sway of a melody, our bodies become vehicles of release. As we dance, we can feel the tension start to melt away, leaving room for a sense of freedom and stability. By turning on music to accompany the shaking, we can create a cathartic experience that allows our worries and anxious thoughts to dissipate. The connection between movement and music taps into our innate human instinct to express ourselves physically, bridging the gap between mind and body. 

In light of all of the above, it is evident that music has the power to calm the mind and relieve anxiety.

Using the techniques above, whether it’s listening to music while you’re in the shower, dancing around your living room, or mindfully listening to relaxing sounds before bed, we can take a step forward to living in the present.  Additionally, engaging in activities such as singing, playing an instrument, or even dancing to your favourite tracks can help release tension and reduce anxiety. The key is to experiment with various musical experiences and find what resonates best with you, as each individual’s musical preferences and triggers may differ. No matter who you are, or how you choose to recover, your anxiety disorder does not define you, and you are not alone. 

– by Madi Allen, MTA, BMT