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music therapy in addiction recovery

Clinically Reviewed by Linda Whiteside, LPCC

Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson, MD

Music Therapy: an Effective and Enjoyable Tool For Addiction Recovery

Table of Contents

“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” – Bob Marley

Recovering from drugs or alcohol is an incredibly challenging undertaking. To up one’s chances of successful recovery, there is increasing evidence that it should be approached in a holistic manner, utilising alternative methods such music therapy, for example. Since the seeds of addiction are based on multiple mental, emotional, and even physical factors, a good recovery plan may operate in all of these areas too. 

For many people trying to recover from using drugs or alcohol, therapy can be a great tool to resolve past incidents as well as making current thought patterns healthier. While talk therapy or perhaps group therapy may be the first things to come to mind, “therapy” can involve many different activities. Walking in nature, riding horses, and visual art are all proven to have therapeutic value — so what else is out there?

About Music Therapy For Addiction Recovery

Recently, it’s been music. The possible positive effects that playing or even listening to music could have on a brain in recovery have been the subject of multiple studies. Compared to other art forms, music has a unique emotional impact on the brain, and scientists wondered if this unique impact could make it a useful tool to add to the list of therapeutic activities. At least one study has found a positive correlation between using music as part of recovery and successful outcomes. Although much of the research around music has focused on mental health in general, their findings are applicable to those in recovery.

This is because therapies for mental health are useful for addicts due to the many overlapping areas between addiction and mental health. More than 20% of addicts meet the clinical criteria for a mood disorder or PTSD—something that may have led them to start using in the first place. Many techniques that work for behavioral health, like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, also have applications for recovering addicts who are dealing with cravings or other difficult thoughts. Additionally, addiction itself may have a negative impact on self-image and self-esteem, conditions that therapists are qualified to treat.

How Can Music Therapy Help?

Of all of the “experiential” methods of therapy, music, in particular, should be considered by recovering addicts. This is because the unique impact music has on several parts of the brain make it particularly applicable to the problems associated with addiction, especially involving emotional regulation.

  • Emotion. Because struggling with emotions is a primary reason people use substances, the emotional response that music elicits can be tremendously helpful. Specifically, music has been proven to help people who may otherwise struggle with understanding their feelings get in touch with and recognize a variety of different emotions. For example, feeling “bad” can be difficult to deal with, because “bad” is actually made up of more specific emotions. Breaking a general feeling up into its composite parts (angry? sad? lonely?) is the first step in dealing with it. For example, anger and sadness are very different emotions that may require different coping methods. When an addict is feeling bad, it may trigger a craving—hence, learning how to break apart and understand emotions is a direct way that addicts can help themselves get sober.
  • Release. Once emotions have been identified, they need to be dealt with. Besides helping identify emotions, music can actually help release them. Science backs up the fact that playing, listening, or writing music can all be tremendously cathartic. Expressing these emotions instead of bottling them up is another way to halt the discomfort associated with cravings.
  • Connection. Especially in the case of playing together, music is a great way to connect with other people. Since many recovering addicts suffer from feelings of isolation, starting or joining a band is a great way to feel less alone. Furthermore, playing or listening to music that one really enjoys raises levels of chemicals in the brain associated with pleasure and reward. For ex-addicts who miss the “high”, music may be a healthier way to recreate some of the same feelings. For accomplished musicians, dancers, or singers, producing something creative that gives other people pleasure may also be an important esteem-booster. Since poor self-esteem is associated with a risk of addiction and can be a problem for people in recovery, finding healthy ways to increase self-regard is extremely important.
  • Productive diversion. Writing, playing, or dancing to music are all activities that involve multiple regions of the brain. Keeping the brain occupied with such an encompassing task is a good means of distraction to help push past strong cravings. If an addict needs to distract themselves while a craving passes, listening to music is better for the brain than more “mindless” distractions like watching a movie. Music may even help the brain build new connections, something that new addicts will have to do as they re-train themselves to be sober.

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy may take either a formal or informal approach. It can be used on its own or adjacent to other techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy by a specialist trained specifically in how to use music as a therapeutic tool. As music therapy gains popularity, more professionals are seeking training in this specialty. Most therapists will list any areas of special training or background on their website. If you enjoy music but don’t play or sing, be assured that music therapy also encompasses just listening as part of the treatment process.

Informal music therapy is simply pursuing the positive benefits of music on one’s own. Many of us will instinctively seek out things that make us feel better, and music is very popular for a good reason. While writing or playing music confer the most benefits, listening has its place, too. Once a person in recovery has some training in actively using therapeutic tools like Cognitive-Behavioral techniques on their own, music may also be combined with other CBT activities like thought-mapping.

How Music Therapy Fits into a Sober Lifestyle

Many addicts have been coping with their emotions by drinking or using drugs for years before they get clean. If the addict started using while they were still a teenager, they may have never developed appropriate coping skills. Being sober forces the brain to find new ways for addicts to respond to challenges and triumphs alike, and just like growing muscles, this process takes time. 

Especially when someone is newly sober, emotions can seem incredibly painful and overwhelming. That’s a primary reason why addicts who are actively in therapy—where they learn how to cope with emotions— have a better chance of staying sober.

Music Therapy For Addiction Recovery

Music has been proven to have incredibly positive effects on the brain, particularly in regard to emotions. As part of a therapy program, it may boost results and help people who have trouble with other techniques in particular. Music can also be tremendously healing in a less formal setting; playing, singing, writing, dancing, or even just listening are all ways to incorporate music into sobriety. it can help ex-addicts cope with some of the elements of being clean that are most likely to cause a relapse, particularly where emotions are concerned. And if it makes self-care and therapy more enjoyable, that’s a bonus, too!

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Written By: Linda Whiteside

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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