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Music as Medicine

Most people probably understand the powerful effect that music can have on our mood, emotions, and overall well-being. But what if music could actually be medicine? A neurologist describes how music can improve our mental health, and even be used as a treatment for anxiety.


3 Ways To Use Music To Calm Anxiety, From A Neurologist

We predicted that the science of sound (or psychoacoustics) will take the well-being space by storm in our 2022 Wellness Trends, but sound healing has actually been around for centuries. "Ayurveda is grounded in sound," says neurologist Kulreet Chaudhary, M.D., on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. Specifically, she notes, certain melodies can bolster your mental health and ease anxiety—and on the other hand, specific frequencies have the potential to sour your mood. "Music absolutely can change the way that your brain is firing," she adds, and you have the ability to use these harmonies to your advantage.

Here, Chaudhary explains three ways to use music to calm your anxious energy, including the best songs to listen to when you're stressed:

1. Dedicate time for music therapy.

According to Chaudhary, it's important to set time dedicated to music therapy—you can't shove in your headphones during a busy workday and expect the sounds to have the same healing effects. Rather, the research shows allotting time and immersing yourself in the frequencies is key. "There was one study that looked at patients with a traumatic brain injury, and they were exposed to neurologic music therapy," Chaudhary notes. This neurologic music therapy included a variety of ancient sound practices, such as chanting mantras. "After just 30 minutes of four of those sessions, their brains started shifting. Their executive function improved and their anxiety and depression was reduced."

She continues: "Create a time of silence, where you're using some of these sound practices for that brain reset." It's like prioritizing any other kind of diet or lifestyle intervention—say, if you're doing a gut reset, you set aside some time to drink warm water first thing in the morning. "Maybe 20 minutes a day, do a sound practice for that specific reason of resetting your brain," Chaudhary adds.

2. Opt for classical music or ancient mantras.

In terms of which songs can help ease those feelings of anxiousness, Chaudhary points to classical tunes. Classical music, she says, is extremely mathematical—each rhythm and harmony has a specific ratio and rule—and your brain thrives off of that order. "When you are exposing your brain to things that are orderly, your brain itself becomes orderly," Chaudhary says.

It's a phenomenon called brain entrainment, where your brain naturally synchronizes to a specific rhythm: "When your brain enters into that entrainment, the neurons synchronize, and they become more efficient. It's really a mathematical principle," she says.

Of course, each culture and tradition has its own version of classical music. For example: "Some of the ancient musical traditions were extremely mathematical," Chaudhary says. "From the way that they were chanted to the tone, everything had such a specific rule to it."

One chant, in particular, she says, is extremely beneficial for calming anxiety: Om, Aim, Namaha. (Listen to the episode to hear her pronunciations, or here's a helpful video.) "You can simply say it out loud at first for 20 minutes a day, then eventually it gets softer and softer, and you just repeat it gently in your mind. Within 20 minutes, you'll notice a reduction in your anxiety," she explains.

3. Stick to uplifting songs.

Even if you don't dedicate time to a classical music therapy practice, Chaudhary says the songs you listen to throughout the day can secretly affect your mental health. Music carries emotional power, after all. Just think about the TV and film industry: People spend ample time selecting the songs in each scene to elicit a certain emotional response. So, say, if you listen to music all day that tends to be a little bit darker and frenetic, that can totally have an impact on your headspace.

"Just start to become conscious of those types of things," says Chaudhary. "What sounds are you being exposed to?" She prefers artists who utilize chanting, like Krishna Das and Deva and Miten, but the most important thing is to identify the music you connect with emotionally. "What is connecting to your heart? What is uplifting you? That internal connection, where you can feel an emotional response to the sound is so important," she says.

The takeaway.

Music can be soothing and uplifting, but it's not all about entertainment—it sparks an emotional response, which can certainly have an effect on your mental health. Says Chaudhary, you might want to be more intentional with the songs you give your attention to rather than mindlessly shuffling through playlists all day long. Just 20 minutes of music therapy a day can have a profound impact on your mood.

To learn more, listen to an interview about this topic by clicking here.

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