Singing Stories, Treating Stress
Ron Hirschberg, MD
Increasingly, medical and psychological groups show that engaging in various creative and expressive activities can help us find positive meaning, promote happiness, develop self-awareness and decrease stress. Music has been shown to have specific healing properties ranging from decreasing stress hormones, blood pressure and heart rate as well as enhancing brain development and resiliency. (1)
We know that songwriting employs these musical elements (melody, timber, rhythm…etc), while including the narrative of an individual or group’s experience. Songs tell stories, and they have the unique ability to provide emotive texture, and have a powerful way of delivering content and message. The marriage of music and narrative appears to be synergistic, ie- intrinsic sound elements intersect with personal content for measured effect in the treatment in post-traumatic stress (PTS) and depression. (3)
Like medication and psychotherapy, music is a stimulus that targets the brain and can address symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression. Neurochemical, neuroanatomic and neurohormonal explanations all contribute to our growing understanding of why and how music creates its impact. Stress hormones have been found to be suppressed with music, further reducing fear and anxiety. (3) Additionally, there has been work in music therapy in populations experiencing PTS, demonstrating evidence for increased human connection, and thus treating avoidance and feelings of isolation. (4)
Evidence and experience point to this power of merging music and story into the song, and developing an individual or group narrative with songwriting guidance is essential to capture the essence of emotion. The result is a product of translating that emotion into the lyric, combining a therapeutic narrative with those intrinsic music properties that help target symptoms like stress and anxiety. In various settings, what has been clear is that the process of songwriting can be just as, or even more therapeutic than listening to the final song itself.
1. Zanini C, Sousa AL. Music therapy as part of the treatment of hypertensive patients. Journal of Hypertension: June 2018.
2. Hirschberg RE, Sylvia L. Collaborative Songwriting Intervention for Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. J Altern Complement Med. 2020 Mar;26(3):198-203.
3. Chanda ML, Levitin D. The neurochemistry of music. Trends Cogn Sci. 2013 Apr;17(4):179-93.
4. Pavlicevic M. Dynamic Interplay in Clinical Improvisation. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. 2002. 2(2).
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