One of the questions I’m frequently asked is if music therapy is an effective treatment option for PTSD. Yes, it is! Several decades of research support the use of music therapy in treating PTSD and various other forms of trauma. In fact, the field of music therapy traces its’ roots back to helping WWII soldiers in military hospitals recover from their injuries (both physical and psychological).
What is PTSD, and how do I know if I have it?
PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a mental health condition that develops in some people following a frightening, unusually stressful, or distressing traumatic life event. However, sometimes the symptoms do not appear until several months, or even years, after the initial traumatic event. Over 3 million individuals are diagnosed with PTSD every year in the US. Although commonly diagnosed among military personnel and first responders, it can affect anyone. So if you think you have it, you’re not alone!
Not every traumatized person develops ongoing (chronic) or even short-term (acute) PTSD. And not everyone with PTSD has been through a dangerous event. Some experiences– like the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one– can also cause PTSD. Symptoms usually begin early, within 3 months of the traumatic incident, but sometimes they begin years afterward. Symptoms must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with relationships or work to be considered PTSD. The course of the illness varies. Some people recover within 6 months, while others have symptoms that last much longer. In some people, the condition becomes chronic.
A doctor who has experience helping people with mental illnesses, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, can diagnose PTSD.
Symptoms are grouped into several different categories:
- reliving (which includes flashbacks, hallucinations, nightmares of the event)
- avoiding (staying away from people, places, things, or memories associated with the event)
- excessive arousal (including increased alertness, anger, irritability as well as trouble sleeping or concentrating)
- negative thoughts and feelings (emotions like guilt and shame about the event)
So how can music therapy help?
It is natural to have some of these symptoms after a dangerous event. Sometimes people have very serious symptoms that go away after a few weeks. This is called acute stress disorder, or ASD. However, when the symptoms last more than a month, seriously affect one’s ability to function, and are not due to substance use, medical illness, or anything except the event itself– they might be PTSD. Some people with PTSD don’t show any symptoms for weeks or months. PTSD is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or one or more of the other anxiety disorders.
Research has shown that music therapy can provide:
- Nonverbal outlet for emotional expression
- Reduction in anxiety and stress
- Improvement in emotional state and mood
- Empowerment for the client
- Improved physiological changes (better blood pressure, heart rate, etc.)
- Opportunity for sharing and connecting with friends/loved ones
- Increased relaxation
- Safe place for self-expression
- Creative outlet
Music therapy is regularly used as a way to help manage stress and cope with difficult situations. Studies in neuroscience have suggested that music can help the brain rewire itself to learn new skills and/or re-program old pathways into new ones. Music can’t erase old memories, but it can possibly help you to see them from a different perspective.
If you’re curious about how music therapy or GIM can help you, please feel free to contact me. I’m always happy to answer your questions! You can also watch the video where I discuss this here. Or read my previous post about music therapy for treating trauma here.
~Stephanie Bolton, MA, MT-BC, FAMI