Dr. Laura Langes, a licensed psychologist from Oasis Mental Health, dives into the relationship between music and mental health from a mental health perspective. Laura Langes, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the field of child, adolescent, and family psychology. She provides therapy to youth struggling with a wide range of emotional and behavioral difficulties, with an emphasis on treating the effects of childhood trauma exposure. Dr. Langes also provides staff education and consultation services to local schools on how to support students who have experienced trauma. She works at a group private practice, Oasis Mental Health, located in Aurora, IL. For more information on Dr. Langes and Oasis Mental Health, visit www.oasis-mental-health.com.
We introduce the second installment of our interview series with a closer look at the relationship between music and mental health from a medical perspective. Here are Dr. Langes's insights on mental health:
Listening to and creating music can have significant benefits for mental health. Listening to music allows people to change their emotional state and arousal level, increase self-awareness, and feel connected to others (to be part of a community). Creating music has the additional benefits of promoting creativity and facilitating emotional expression. It can be difficult for people to make sense of and express their thoughts and feelings, particularly when those thoughts and feelings are distressing, because we can’t find the right words. But music is a language of its own that allows us to express those internal experiences we can’t find words for and to feel connected to others who may have the same experiences.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression in the US and worldwide have increased significantly. Humans need to feel safe and in-control in order to function effectively. COVID-19 poses a very real threat to our safety, and the sudden, unprecedented life changes and mass uncertainty about how to handle the pandemic resulted in many people feeling out of control. This is the basis of what makes events traumatic. The anxiety, fear, sadness, depression, and grief felt as a result are normal and adaptive in such abnormally stressful times. However, many people have found themselves stuck in their anxiety and/or depression to the point that their daily functioning has been significantly impaired more days than not. When these feelings are so intense and ongoing that they keep people from finding healthy ways to adapt to their situation, this is when people are at risk of developing an anxiety or depressive disorder, as well as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Absolutely! Rhythmic, repetitive sounds and movements help calm our brain’s survival/stress response, and music is rhythmic and repetitive by nature. The more patterned, rhythmic, and repetitive the music is, the more likely you’ll feel calmed by it (whether you’re listening to the music or singing/playing an instrument). When picking music to listen to for stress-reduction purposes, genre or volume doesn’t necessarily matter (there’s lots of individual differences and preferences). Whatever you pick, what’s most important is that you 1) actually like what you’re listening to and 2) experience a felt sense of relaxation/calm when listening to it. Many people might not associate hip-hop/rap or hard rock/metal with calm states, but if you like this music and it’s really rhythmic (e.g., patterned beats, drums), you may actually feel calmer and happier listening to it. Slower tempos tend to be more calming/relaxing, whereas faster tempos tend to be more energizing/uplifting. Moving to the music can increase calming or energizing effects. Pair slow, repetitive movement activities like yoga or tai chi with soothing rhythmic music. Or dance along to an upbeat pop song to feel more happy and awake.
It's also important to note that music can be helpful for making meaning of traumatic experiences and feeling like our difficult, negative feelings are valid. For example, if you’re feeling depressed, listening to more depressing music – as long as you actually like the music – can be initially helpful. Same goes for if you’re feeling angry, listening to angry music – again, only if you like that type of music in the first place – can be helpful. It can help you feel like there are other people going through the same experience as you; you’re not alone. However, it’s very important to remember that while you may feel more understood and connected to others, sad or angry songs might not improve your mood or induce a sense of calm. So make sure to include music that is soothing/calming and uplifting in your listening mix.
Yes and no. There is much more awareness now about mental health issues and the importance of treatment. This especially seems to be the case for anxiety and depression. While awareness is the first step toward reducing stigma, much more needs to be done to combat the cultural stigma of mental health issues/mental illness. Studies on stigma in the U.S. unfortunately have found an increase in stigma for severe mental illnesses over the past 10 years. Research points to violence being the leading cause of mental health stigma, specifically the all too frequent high-profile cases of violence perpetrated by someone with a mental health history (e.g., mass shootings, school shootings). This media coverage – paired with government officials who perpetuate the narrative that only mentally ill people commit violent acts like these – only serves to increase the stigma of mental illness and decrease the likelihood people who need treatment will seek it out. There’s also the problem of access to mental health services. Until there are changes in policy at the state and federal level (specifically increased funding for community mental health and preventative services) inequities in mental health care will continue to exacerbate the overall problem of treatment access.
I’m hopeful, though, because of the many adolescents and young adults I’ve worked with over the years who report reduced stigma of mental health issues and getting therapy amongst their peers. I’m hopeful because of the growing number of musical artists, professional athletes, and other celebrities who are telling their stories of mental health struggles, including how therapy has helped them. And I’m hopeful because of people like yourself, Chandra, who are so passionate about raising awareness, reducing stigma, and encouraging people to seek treatment.
Thank you for reading the second installment of the interview series in which we hope to flesh out the relationship between music and mental health. Please visit the tab on mental health to learn more information about the current state of mental health and to find more resources. As always, please read our other articles and interviews and stay tuned for more music opportunities coming up!