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Mozart as Medicine: The Health Benefits of Music

Mozart as Medicine: The Health Benefits of Music

David Binanay started playing the violin when he was five. By age 12, he performed at the world famous Carnegie Hall in New York City and, soon after, at the White House. In 2006, fresh from his graduation from Villanova University, Binanay was positioned perfectly to build his life around music. He moved into his own place and started a job at a high-end violin shop. That is when he noticed the bleeding.

Music and the mind

It was a gastrointestinal bleed. Binanay experienced one before and he called his mom to let her know what was happening. She wanted to help, but he stopped her. “Don’t worry about it. I’m going to handle it myself,” he said. This was the first time Binanay tried to handle a serious health issue on his own. When he arrived at the hospital, things began to spiral out of control. His hands started shaking and his mind began to separate from reality. “It was my first psychotic episode,” David recalls. The situation went downhill fast. After resolving the bleeding issue and leaving the hospital, Binanay’s psychosis continued. He started having delusions and became fearful of everything. “I couldn’t even walk into a grocery store because of the fear,” he says. “I didn’t really know what I was afraid of, but I feared for my life. In the span of one week I went from being normal to having a complete psychotic breakdown.” This was the peak of his psychosis, but his battle was just beginning. He struggled with schizophrenia for the next five years. His medications worked, but he had trouble sticking to them. There was one thing, however, that always seemed to help. “My dad would look at me and say, ‘Dave, go get your violin.’”

The healing power of music

Music stopped the pain. “Every time I did play, I noticed a change,” Binanay said. “I would channel my emotions through my music. The fear would turn to music. It would turn to sound.” A new medication schedule helped too. Binanay found it much easier to stick to his medication when he switched from pills to injections, which he only needed once a month. Today, after a five-year battle, Binanay has made a full recovery. He plays his violin up to 10 hours per day and runs a non-profit, Music Over Mind, that performs free music shows at hospitals for people suffering from mental illness.

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“Music has been my catalyst for recovery,” Binanay says. “It has been a 180 degree turnaround. From complete loss to total re-birth. I recently got married. I have my own place with my wife. I feel like I’m a better person than before my illness.”

David Binanay’s story raises an interesting series of questions. Can music help heal us? What role does music play in our health and happiness? Can music be a form of medicine?

The stroke victim who was healed by music

In her book The Power of Music, author Elena Mannes shares the story of a stroke patient who lost the ability to speak. After struggling to re-learn normal speech patterns, the patient makes a breakthrough by singing her words rather than saying them. This approach is known as melodic intonation therapy and it engages the right side of the brain more than normal speech. As a result, this different section of the brain can stand in as a replacement for the normal language area and be used to communicate through song. [1]

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At first glance, this story may seem like a very specific way to combine music and health, but it actually provides a good indication of the state of music therapy. There are many stories about music being used to help Parkinson’s patients move, autistic children focus and learn, and multiple sclerosis patients reduce spasms. These stories, however, have no research studies supporting them. My guess is that these are individualized results which, although true, are difficult to extrapolate to the entire population. That said, there are a handful of health benefits of music that are well-accepted and scientifically proven.

The research: music as medicine

Music can be used to relieve pain in patients. For example, surgery patients at the Cleveland Clinic that listened to recorded music saw a four times decrease in post-surgical pain. Music is also shown to reduce the amount of anesthesia needed during operations. [2, 3]

Music can be used to relieve stress and anxiety. Calming music decreases blood pressure, steadies the heart rate, and eases stress. Research shows that music can reduce stress for patients undergoing surgeries and colonoscopies, for children undergoing medical procedures, and for patients with coronary heart disease. [4-7]

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There is also preliminary evidence showing that listening to music can boost immune system function by decreasing stress hormones and increasing growth hormones. These changes prime the body to be in a better state for recovering from and resisting illnesses, but the research is weak thus far and needs further investigation. [8]

There are a range of studies that link music to happiness and pleasure in different ways. Despite the differences in the individual studies, the scientific consensus on the topic is that music does stimulate the same areas of the brain that trigger pleasure in other activities. A range of studies find that listening to pleasurable music stimulates the mesocorticolimbic system in the brain, which is the same “pleasure center” that is triggered by humor, tasty food, and even cocaine. In this way, you could say that music is like a drug. If music makes you happy, then it might be possible that it is good for your health. [9-12] These benefits sound great, but is music unique in providing these benefits? Not really. Given the current state of the research, it is not known if music is any better at healing than other alternatives. Music is not the only way to relieve pain or reduce stress. Music might work well for Person A, while meditation is better for Person B, and deep breathing or exercise help Person C. If nothing else, however, music is another tool at your disposal when you want to relieve pain, reduce stress, and promote healing.

The limitations of music therapy

You can summarize the current state of research on the connection between music and health by saying that we know music impacts our brains and bodies, but we don’t quite understand exactly why or how music does this. And because we don’t understand the details, it can be hard to use music for healing. To be honest, part of these issues could be solved if researchers performed better studies. Right now, researchers aren’t doing themselves any favors because musical research rarely follows a typical format. Here are a few common errors (and solutions): [13]

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  1. Current research doesn’t clearly differentiate if it is the act of playing music or the act of listening to music that benefits patients. For example, if a patient gets better after playing songs on a keyboard, chanting in different tones, or singing their favorite song, is he benefiting from the musical notes or from the act of playing music? Future studies should investigate if active performance or passive listening yields better results.
  2. Current research poorly categorizes the impact of different music styles. Most researchers lump music therapy into broad “stimulating” or “relaxing” categories. Future research should include more clearly defined boundaries, so we can understand which types of music can be used to heal in specific situations.
  3. Current research flip-flops on who controls the music. Sometimes the experimenter chooses the music. Sometimes the patient chooses her own music. This can complicate things because sometimes you are more likely to see music as having a positive impact simply if you select the music. Future research should be more clear about this selection process.
  4. Current research varies between individual listening, individual playing, and group playing. In many cases, patients may benefit from simply doing an activity with a group and not the music itself. Future research should investigate these environmental factors to help clarify the impact of individual vs. group music therapy.
  5. Current research, at least what I found, was universally missing a large, randomized trial. This type of study is the gold-standard of research and if music therapy interventions are to be taken seriously, then a high quality randomized study is needed.

The health benefits of music

Whether it is a pick-me-up song that brightens your mood or a life-saving violin practice like that of David Binanay, we have all felt the healing power of music. From a research standpoint, the health benefits of music are unproven. However, I say that I try to balance being a scientist with being a practitioner and, from a practical standpoint, there are very few reasons to avoid music as a way to improve your health and happiness. Music therapy is noninvasive, inexpensive, and convenient. And music is one of the lifestyle choices we can make that relieves stress and anxiety, decreases pain, and protects against disease. Stefan Koelsch, a senior research fellow in neurocognition at the University of Sussex in Brighton, summarizes the healing effects of music by saying, “I can’t say music is a pill to abolish diseases. But … So many pills have horrible side effects, both physiological and psychological. Music has no side effects, or no harmful ones.” [14, 15]

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

Sources

  1. The Power of Music by Elena Mannes. pg. 179
  2. The Power of Music by Elena Mannes. pg. 168
  3. The Power of Music by Elena Mannes. pg. 172
  4. Cepeda, M.S. et al. (2006) Music for pain relief.
  5. Nilsson, U. (2008) The anxiety and pain-reducing effects of music interventions: a systematic review.
  6. Dileo, C. and Bradt, J. (2007) Music therapy: applications to stress management. In Principles and Practice of Stress Management (Lehrer, P.M. et al., eds), pp. 519–544, Guilford Press
  7. Bradt, J. and Dileo, C. (2009) Music for stress and anxiety reduction in coronary heart disease patients.
  8. Gangrade, A. (2012) The effect of music on the production of neurotransmitters, hormones, cytokines, and peptides: a review.
  9. Breiter, H.C. et al. (1997) Acute effects of cocaine on human brain activity and emotion.
  10. Small, D.M. et al. (2001) Changes in brain activity related to eating chocolate: From pleasure to aversion.
  11. Mobbs, D. et al. (2003) Humor modulates the mesolimbic reward centers.
  12. Blood, A.J.and Zatorre, R.J.(2001) Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion.
  13. Many of these research limitations are covered in the guide, The Neurochemistry of Music by Chanda and Levitin.
  14. The Power of Music. pg. 193-194
  15. There is one side effect of music: opportunity cost. Listening to music that makes you happy is a great way to spend your time, but only if you’re not ignoring other things that make you happy or could improve your health and lifestyle. For example, if you listened to music that made you happy all day, but never worked out, then how big of a health benefit are you really getting? The same could be said for happiness. If you simply consumed music that you enjoyed all day long would you end up living a better life than if you had spent that time building a business you loved or mastering a skill that advanced your career? As with all uses of our time, there are tradeoffs to listening to music and it’s important to balance it with other areas of life that provide a payoff.

Thanks to David Binanay for taking time to chat with me and to Sam Sager for his help researching this article.

Featured photo credit: There is nothing more to be said or to be done tonight, so hand me over my violin and let us try to forget for half an hour the miserable weather and the still more miserable ways of our fellowmen./Flood G. via flickr.com

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James Clear

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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Last Updated on July 10, 2020

How to Take Control of Your Life with Better Boundaries

How to Take Control of Your Life with Better Boundaries

We all have them—those hurtful, frustrating, offensive, manipulative people in our lives. No matter how hard we try to surround ourselves with positive and kind people, there will always be those who will disrespect, insult, berate, and misuse you if we allow them to.

We may, for a variety of reasons, not be able to avoid them, but we can determine how we interact with them and how we allow them to interact with us.

So, how to take control of your life and stop being pushed around?

Learning to set clear firm boundaries with the people in our lives at work and in our personal lives is the best way to protect ourselves from the negative effects of this kind of behavior.

What Boundaries Are (And What They’re Not)

Boundaries are limits

—they are not threats or ultimatums. Boundaries inform or teach. They are not a form of punishment.

Boundaries are firm lines—determined by you—which cannot be crossed by those around you. They are guidelines for how you will allow others to treat you and what kind of behaviors you will expect.

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Healthy personal boundaries help protect you from physical or emotional pain. You may also need to set firm boundaries at work to ensure you and your time are not disrespected. Don’t allow others to take advantage of your kindness and generosity.

Clear boundaries communicate to others that you demand respect and consideration—that you are willing to stand up for yourself and that you will not be a doormat for anyone. They are a “no trespassing” sign that makes it very clear when a line has been crossed and that there will be consequences for doing so.

Boundaries are not set with the intention of changing other people. They may change how people interact with you, but they are more about enforcing your needs than attempting to change the general behavior and attitude of others.

How to Establish Boundaries and Take Control of Your Life

Here are some ways that you can establish boundaries and take control of your life.

1. Self-Awareness Comes First

Before you can establish boundaries with others, you first need to understand what your needs are.

You are entitled to respect. You have the right to protect yourself from inappropriate or offensive behavior. Setting boundaries is a way of honoring your needs.

To set appropriate boundaries, you need to be clear about what healthy behaviors look like—what healthy relationships look like.

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You first have to become more aware of your feelings and honest with yourself about your expectations and what you feel is appropriate behavior:

  • Where do you need to establish better boundaries?
  • When do you feel disrespected?
  • When do you feel violated, frustrated, or angered by the behavior of others?
  • In what situations do you feel you are being mistreated or taken advantage of?
  • When do you want to be alone?
  • How much space do you need?

You need to honor your own needs and boundaries before you can expect others to honor them. This allows you to take control of your life.

2. Clear Communication Is Essential

Inform others clearly and directly what your expectations are. It is essential to have clear communication if you want others to respect your boundaries. Explain in an honest and respectful tone what you find offensive or unacceptable.

Many people simply aren’t aware that they are behaving inappropriately. They may never have been taught proper manners or consideration for others.

3. Be Specific but Don’t Blame

Taking a blaming or punishing attitude automatically puts people on the defensive. People will not listen when they feel attacked. It’s part of human nature.

That said, you do not need to overexplain or defend yourself. Boundaries are not open to compromise.

Sample language:

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  • “You may not…yell or raise your voice to me…”
  • “I need…to be treated with respect…”
  • “It’s not okay when…you take things from my desk without asking…”
  • “I won’t…do your work…cover for you anymore…”
  • “It’s not acceptable when…you ridicule or insult me…”
  • “I am uncomfortable when…you use offensive language”
  • “I will no longer be able to…lend you money…”

Being able to communicate these without sounding accusatory is essential if you want others to respect your boundaries so you can take control of your life.

4. Consequences Are Often Necessary

Determine what the appropriate consequences will be when boundaries are crossed. If it’s appropriate, be clear about those consequences upfront when communicating those boundaries to others.

Follow through. People won’t respect your boundaries if you don’t enforce them.

Standing our ground and forcing consequences doesn’t come easily to us. We want to be nice. We want people to like us, but we shouldn’t have to trade our self-respect to gain friends or to achieve success.

We may be tempted to let minor disrespect slide to avoid conflict, but as the familiar saying goes, “if you give people an inch, they’ll take a mile.”

It’s much easier to address offensive or inappropriate behavior now than to wait until that behavior has gotten completely out of hand.

It’s also important to remember that positive reinforcement is even more powerful than negative consequences. When people do alter the way they treat you, acknowledge it. Let people know that you notice and appreciate their efforts.

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Final Thoughts

Respect is always a valid reason for setting a boundary. Don’t defend yourself or your needs. Boundaries are often necessary to protect your time, your space, and your feelings. And these are essential if you want to take control of your life.

Start with the easiest boundaries first. Setting boundaries is a skill that needs to be practiced. Enlist support from others if necessary. Inform people immediately when they have crossed the line.

Don’t wait. Communicate politely and directly. Be clear about the consequences and follow them through.

The better you become at setting your own boundaries, the better you become at recognizing and respecting the boundaries of others.

Remember that establishing boundaries is your right. You are entitled to respect. You can’t control how other people behave, but you do have control over the way you allow people to treat you.

Learning to set boundaries is not always easy, but with time, it will become more comfortable. You may eventually find that boundaries become automatic and you no longer need to consciously set them.

They will simply become a natural extension of your self-respect.

Featured photo credit: Thomas Kelley via unsplash.com

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