The Power of Music in Addiction Recovery
I don't know about you, but for me music in addiction recovery has been a blessing. Music has this mysterious ability to change my mood in an instant. It can lift me up or calm me down, without the need for substances.
During my active addiction (and especially towards the end) the only music I listened to was sad memory provoking songs. These songs I would use to justify and reinforce my own huge amounts of self indulgent pity and pain. I know now, from speaking to others, this is quite typical.
In the early days, when substance abuse was fun, and yes it was fun (albeit for a relatively short while) music would add to the whole experience.
I listened to a completely different music genre back then, one that would leave me feeling pumped up, sexy, powerful and invincible. My favourite song of choice was Titanium, ft Sia, (says it all really!). I really did feel bulletproof, or at least until the drugs and alcohol wore off.
What I've learned about music is that it can be incredibly powerful and emotive. It has the power to reach deep inside of me and bring out the strongest of emotions.
Music has the capability to change my mood or enhance an already established state of mind.
The other thing I've learned, since coming into recovery, is that music is an incredibly safe way of expressing my innermost feelings and of processing memories - without the need for a drink or a drug.
So, what is it about music in addiction recovery that makes it so very powerful?
Music acts on the brain's limbic system, which is responsible for laying down new memories and storing old memories, regulating and processing emotions, sexual arousal and learning.
The brain's limbic system also plays an important role in the body's response to stress.
Most addiction related therapies will have an element that focuses on targeting the brain's limbic system. This serves in provoking memories and strong emotions that have been suppressed by substance abuse, so that they can be explored and processed within a safe and supportive environment.
Talking therapy is not for everyone, especially when it comes to healing deep and painful trauma. Some people just cannot find the words to express their inner pain. Others find the thought of tackling something that has been repressed for so long too frightening to discuss head on. This is common and this is where alternative therapies like music therapy come into their own.
Therapies that are non confrontational and considered a valuable alternative to the more traditional talking therapies include music, art, equine and drama therapy.
Each of these therapies have the ability to provoke strong memories and emotions but without the added pressure of a therapist asking questions.
In essence, they enable a person to unveil in a creative and supportive way what it is they need to say through the expression of the medium, (rather than directly speaking through themselves). For a person that has suffered trauma, this is a far less frightening prospect and offers a softer way in which they can express themselves and heal.
Music can improve cognitive focus and function
Scientific research on music has found that music can have a profound effect on our cognitive function and mood.
Test subjects, monitored during a controlled experiment, who had lost their verbal communication skills as a result of suffering a stroke - showed substantial improvements in many areas.
It was found that by listening to their favourite music everyday (not audio books, but actual music) their cognitive function improved. Furthermore, they were less confused and their mood also drastically improved. Conversely, the control group, who were either listening to audio books or nothing at all, showed no signs of improvement in these areas.
Understanding how music can work as a form of healing therapy and by way of lifting us up and improving cognitive function, is it any wonder it can have such a profound effect on our mood, and indeed our overall well-being?
On the other hand (going back to the days of indulging my own self-pity) music has the power to actually make us feel worse. It can help us to ruminate over unpleasant memories that we associate with a particular piece of music, event and time.
Changing the genre & being mindful
Coming into addiction recovery, it was a while before I could actually really listen to music again. I am not sure why, perhaps my brain was still shaken from the battering it had taken. But for whatever reason, I simply didn't listen to music. I found it loud and annoying
Being more mindful and present, I am now well aware of the effects certain types of music can have on me. For instance, the 90s clubbing music can take me back to the heady days of speed and cocaine use, where I would party all weekend long (euphoric recall).
Those were the good old days ... brief as they were.
Certain sad songs can take me back to a particular emotional loss or painful relationship break-up. Yes, music has the power to transport me back in time. The difference is now, I know I don't have to stay there. In fact, I can easily switch it up if I choose to.
The benefits of music in addiction recovery
In addiction recovery, I can use music to my benefit. I can use it to relax and unwind (my preferred choice at the moment). Equally, I can use it to boost my energy and get me up and ready for the day ahead.
I can also use music to evoke strong emotions in me. I can cry because of its beauty or because I find it relative to my own experiences. Emotions aren't the enemy today and sometimes it takes a little added extra (music) for me to safely express them without harming myself or anyone else.
Music can be so beneficial to recovery (or at least to mine), if, I am mindful of my song choices. I prefer to stay firmly in the present wherever possible, but visiting the past every once in a while is inevitable, and it's not the end of the world.
The great thing about music is that when the song stops, I can move on.
Exploring music in your own addiction recovery
One thing to remember is that we are all unique individuals. What lifts one person up, could bring another person down. It is the same with music.
It is therefore important to find out what music makes you happy. At the same time, there may be music that helps to relax you or to safely explore your own emotions.
As emotional (and hormonal) beings, our moods can change very quickly. What helped us last week, for instance, may not work so well today.
Selecting pieces of music that make you feel a certain way and placing them under a titled ‘playlist’ can provide a quick go-to whenever the need or desire for music arises.
When choosing your playlist, it will undoubtedly help to be mindful of what you want to gain from the music being played.
Do you want to relax? Meditate? Workout? Feel empowered? Feel energised? Lift your mood? Grieve? Or, do you simply just want to dance around the living room or sing along in the car?
Whatever it is that you want to take away from your music if you are mindful of your selection you can achieve it
Music therapy in addiction recovery
Author - Sammi
- Emotional responses to music: towards scientific perspectives on music therapy https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18281896/
- Unforgettable film music: The role of emotion in episodic long-term memory for music: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2430709/
- The limbic system: Definition, parts, function and location: https://www.simplypsychology.org/limbic-system.html
- Music listening enhances cognitive recovery and mood after middle cerebral artery stroke. Brain. Särkämö T, Tervaniemi M, Laitinen S, Forsblom A, Soinila S, Mikkonen M, Autti T, Silvennoinen HM, Erkkilä J, Laine M, Peretz I, Hietanen M. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18287122/