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Music for Rest and Pain Management
by Natasha Thomas



Editor's Note from Bernice Chu: How can we use music to replenish our own resources? Natasha Thomas writes curiously about the different aspects of music listening and making, and how one may use this to restore oneself. This has certainly encouraged me to explore and re-visit my own musical resources.

There are many things in our everyday world that can bring pain: extreme temperatures and overworked muscles alone can make quite the combination! In addition to eating well, staying hydrated, and exercising regularly, there are some things you can do musically to alleviate pain and facilitate rest and relaxation.

First:  Pay attention to your auditory environment, specifically the music you use to enhance existing emotional states.

While I am an advocate of using Music in your everyday life, every individual is going to have a different musical and auditory preference and listening style, so you will never hear me say that Mozart’s Piano Sonatas (or any specific type of music) is the “be-all end-all” for aiding one ailment or another, nor will you ever find instructions here on exact times or durations for which to listen or engage. For example, some people like to listen to music to help them sleep, but I find music far too stimulating to sleep to. I can use music to recharge and energize quietly in a way that some might interpret as relaxation, but in general it’s my personal taste to avoid sound and light when I’m trying to sleep – I need total dark and quiet. So, check in with your environment – when do you like to listen to music? What kind of music are you drawn to in specific states of mind? What are your “happy” songs? Your “relaxing” songs? What are the times and sounds that you just can’t stand listening to, ever? Make some mental notes and try to become conscious of those times when you feel like a good listen, and capitalize on those moments as they become available. With those times and emotions in mind, you can then also try to…

Use Music to change your emotional state – using your “relaxing” songs as triggers for pulling out of those moments when you don’t feel so relaxed can be a very effective pain management tool as well. I’ve said before (and I’ll say again!) that music is an excellent re-focusing tool: it provides something external to devote your brain’s energy to so it isn’t focused on your discomfort. As many doctors will tell you with any method of pain management (including medication), the sooner in the pain process you utilize what tools you have, the better. Once you get to a certain threshold of pain, there are limitations to what any non-chemical treatment can do. Some tips to utilize before reaching that point of no return:

SoundSleeping.Com has an excellent little tool for creating your own “Relaxation Music.” While it is more a gimmick than anything, it is a neat way of distinguishing what kinds of sounds you find relaxing, and what just doesn’t work for you.

In previous posts I’ve talked about Circular Breathing. While it’s not always necessary to use that specific breathing technique, it is important that you do focus on your breathing during times of discomfort and try to slow and deepen it. Singers are familiar with regular use of the phrase “breath from your diagram.” This is also known as “belly breathing” and it’s what your body does naturally when you’re laying down – your abdomen distends and retracts while breathing deeply, but under stress and discomfort, it’s not uncommon for breathing to become very shallow. Finding music that encourages deep breath is something I’ve found to be very helpful. From a young age I enjoyed the song “Adeamus” from the Pure Moods CD my family had lying around the house – I still have kind of a soft spot for it now. I love that the relaxed 3/4 tempo perfectly encourages me to breath deeply. It may work for you, it may not. I had a student tell me the other day that Fireflight’s “Unbreakable” is what helps her relax – it does have a pretty distinct beat that if you think of it in large phrases is helpful for timing to your breath, but it’s definitely a metal song! What works for you may be different. I know my husband, who is a huge Moby fan, has really been into the Ambient CD he released recently, with toned down tracks off his latest album “Wait for me,” of which the title track is definitely worth a listen if you’re looking for a good starting point to…

Finding the right music – it’s important that whatever you find moves you, but try also to look for music that is limited in instrumentation and vocals, relaxed in tempo, but solid enough in pulse to give you something external to focus your breathing on. Even in early classical music, which isn’t too heavy on the drums, pieces that really emphasize the pulse without beating it out for you are not hard to find. The Double Violin Concerto by Bach is among my favorites in that category. The link I’ve included to that work actually includes some comments below the video from people who have used the piece to de-stress, even one woman saying she listened to this concerto while giving birth, and if that isn’t painful, I don’t know what is! Songs that facilitate calming effects like that are the type of music you’ll want to find to really promote relaxation and pain relief.

Now, after you’ve checked in with your environment, found what moves you, and used it to refocus during times of stress and pain, form some associations by teaming up your senses as I mentioned in my post on re-tuning your brain. Take a bubble bath while you listen to your “Relaxing Song,” or cook while you listen to your “Energizing Song,” use as many senses as you can, so that if you ever find yourself in a place where popping in a CD and listening to some Enya might not be appropriate, you can perhaps recall or engage in some of the other activities you did while listening to that particular piece. You will find yourself much calmer and relaxed than you were before. My husband recalls times in his life when his parents would stroke his forehead when he was little and not feeling well – now, if anyone touches him in that same way, a little smile comes across his face, remembering that feeling of comfort and safety – the brain truly is a magnificent machine!

While we’re on the topic of touch… I have personally found some form of “deep pressure” to be useful in times of physical and emotional stress. Deep Pressure in its purist forms involves applying intense physical pressure to the entire body. It is often done by OTs with children who have Autism to assist their sensory integration skills – that is a very specific practice, and I want to be clear that what I’m advocating is a variation on that technique that is more focused to specific parts of the body and can be done safely by anyone with a little common sense. The type of deep pressure I benefit from is similar to getting a really good hug, or having your upper back cracked by a chiropractor – the way mine does it is to have me cross my arms across my chest and then lay back into a mat while he presses down on my arms. The action itself is very intense and tight physically, but the aftermath is so freeing. My husband describes the feeling of deep pressure on his head during a migraine (which I typically apply with my open palms pressed against the front and back of his head) as a way of “focusing my attention outside the inside of my head.” Again, music can help facilitate this same sensation, but a little push (literally) never hurts! Just be sure to apply pressure evenly and steadily, without jerking or jabbing. Also, the type of pain you’re experiencing will also dictate whether deep pressure is appropriate or not (it might be for a headache, but a broken arm? maybe not). The “little push” link, while titled “Deep Pressure and Heavy Activities for School Age Children” actually contains some great tips for general ways to use increased pressure activities in your everyday life for stress management. If you’re interested in Deep Pressure for Autism, click here for a link to a Temple Grandin article on the “Squeeze Machine.” For those of you unfamiliar with Temple Grandin, she is one of the most famous, educated (I believe she has a PhD) individuals with High-Functioning Autism alive today. She was recently the feature of a film starring Claire Danes.

Active music making is also a positive tool for managing pain and stress if you aren’t too physically involved to the point where playing or singing isn’t possible. I’ve mentioned the 12 Houses Drum Circle here before – I find that group to be one of the most energizing and relaxing things I do for myself all month, and from what I hear after each session from group participants, it is for them as well! Engaging in playing an instrument involves you physically and mentally, as does singing – just think of all the muscles you engage and how many signals your brain is sending during music making. How can it focus on anything else?

So, see what’s up out there! Go to your local paper’s Music page and see what events and news in your community you can take advantage of to relax and unwind. Included at the top of the Music Moves blog page is a navigation button to a “MT in North Dakota” page with up-to-the-minute information on groups like this and other recurring events in Music Therapy in the Grand Forks community here and elsewhere statewide. If you aren’t from the area, also available on the far right sidebar of each Music Moves page is the “Tag Cloud,” where you can click on specific Categories or Topics and be linked to all the posts that relate to them so you can search for related topics and events in your area. As posts continue into more and more areas of Music Therapy, I hope you will find that feature useful to search for subjects of interest.


Have a comment or question? Visit our Music Therapy Forum to start or join a conversation.



About the Author

Natasha Thomas is a graduate of the University of North Dakota (Bachelor of Music in Music Therapy) and Board Certified Music Therapist - serving the Grand Forks Public Schools through Music Therapy in Motion (owned by Emily Wangen) and individuals statewide through North Dakota Vision Services/School for the Blind (NDVS/SB), and ND School for the Deaf. She additionally sees private clients in the home and in settings like LISTEN Day Services and the LISTEN Drop-In Center.

You can contact Natasha by email at natasha.mtbc@gmail.com.






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