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Upbeat: How music helps you heal from trauma and stress

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Numerous studies have shown that patients benefit when nurses have compassionate listening skills. But when the listening involves music, it can help nurses themselves feel better. Music therapy is especially powerful for nurses who need stress relief or who are coping with trauma. And while it might sound like a buzz word or ultra-alternative medicine, there is a pile of evidence-based research that proves music therapy works.

“Most people use music in their daily lives to reduce stress without even thinking about it!” explained Jamie George, MM, LPMT, MT-BC, a neurologic and NICU music therapist and executive director of the George Center for Music Therapy, based in Roswell. “Research shows the listening to, creating and participating in or making music reduces blood pressure, increases oxygen intake, decreases perceived anxiety and strengthens neural pathways by releasing dopamine and serotonin.”

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Proven effective

George said she gets plenty of flack for music being a random benefactor to humans, but that's not at all the case. "Contrary to the common assumption that music is a pleasant pastime created by humans for purposes of entertainment, it is actually a biologically necessary component of brain function that both emerges from the brain and acts upon the brain to stimulate important neural development."

One 2013 study took the idea of "music as an economic, non-invasive and highly accepted intervention tool" and ran with it. The research team examined music's effects across endocrine, autonomic, cognitive and emotional domains of the human stress response and found listening to music did indeed impact the "psychobiological stress system," according to the abstract. "Listening to music prior to a standardized stressor predominantly affected the autonomic nervous system (in terms of a faster recovery), and to a lesser degree the endocrine and psychological stress response."

Music can also make happy people happier, releasing the endorphins that make people combat anxiety, ease pain and stabilize the immune system. "With high endorphin levels, we have fewer negative effects of stress," noted Science of People. And medical professionals have found music, particularly nostalgic tunes, an effective tool for helping patients with dementia and Alzheimer's retrieve their memories. Finnish researchers found stroke patients who listened to music two hours a day recovered verbal memory and focused attention more quickly. And they were in a better mood than peers who just listened to the sounds of silence.

For nurses, one of the most critical benefits is the way music improves mindfulness and helps pace your emotions in a career that's fast-paced. "Music can be used as background or ambient stimulation when meditating or doing deep breathing exercises," George noted. "Since rhythm primes the motor system, music is especially helpful in regulating breathing. Furthermore, different types of music can be used to match mood and emotion. Also, lyrics can be comforting, especially taking into account the listener's current state of mind."

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Tapping the therapeutic benefits of music

As you might expect, not all music is created equal when it comes to therapeutic properties. "Native American, Celtic, Indian stringed-instruments, drums and flutes are very effective at relaxing the mind even when played moderately loud," according to University of Nevada, Reno, Counseling Services, "Sounds of rain, thunder and nature sounds may also be relaxing particularly when mixed with other music, such as light jazz, classical (the 'largo' movement) and easy listening music."

Don't like the sound of any of that (literally)? Go with your preference, recommended UNR. "You must first like the music being played, and then it must relax you. Forcing yourself to listen to relaxation music that irritates you can create tension, not reduce it."

George recommended nurses incorporate quiet music at the nurse's station or listen to tunes while they chart. "Many nurses who have experienced having a music therapist in their NICU have reported that the whole unit is quieter. Using music during break periods on long shifts could assist in relaxation or motivation, depending on what is needed."

Music therapy is also an option for nurses coping with life issues or trauma. "There are many music therapists who offer self care sessions for nurses, allied health and similar professions during team building and continuing education events," George added.

If you’re looking for relaxation so deep you’ll nod off, music may not be your best bet, UNR noted. “It’s important to remember that quieting your mind does not mean you will automatically feel sleepy. It means your brain and body are relaxed, and with your new calm self, you can then function at your best in many activities.”

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