Meditation and mindfulness are often recommended as important tools for stress management for any individual. Could music listening be the third “m” alongside these two powerful ways of supporting health?
Given the seemingly simple nature of meditation and mindfulness practices (breathing, sitting still, letting your thoughts pass by or focusing on mental imagery), the mounting evidence showing significant effects of these practices on stress and anxiety as well as associated physiology is astounding. However, despite their popularity and positive health effects, meditation and mindfulness practices are not for everyone. For some people, the mere thought of sitting still and alone with one’s thoughts is in itself anxiety- and stress-provoking. There are even some anecdotes of adverse effects on mental health.
Luckily, there are other options for managing stress. Recent studies have revealed that music listening, one of the most enjoyable, commonplace and easy activities that people engage in, is an important gateway to relaxation. But can music listening have as profound an effect on stress physiology as meditation and mindfulness? According to recent findings, the answer is yes, and that yet again, the bridge between music and health is built on emotion.
The effect that music-listening has on mood and emotions is well-documented in research. This tight link between music and emotion is believed to underlie the benefits that music can provide for cognition as well as physical activity. Recently, Professor Stefan Koelsch and his colleagues provided intriguing new insight into the effects that music-evoked emotions can have on stress and stress-related physiological reactions.
In their experiment, 146 participants were randomly assigned to a music group and a control group. The subjects were stressed by a CO2 stress test. This test entails the inhalation of carbon dioxide, which has been found to reliably induce a physiological stress state. After the stress test, the participants recovered by lying down and listening to either music (in the music group) or random, non-musical tones (in the control group). The subjects rated their mood before the stress test, and again after the 1-hour recovery phase. Before the test, as well as during the recovery phase, several blood samples were collected from the participants to measure the concentrations of stress-related hormones and cytokines in their blood.
The results of the study showed that the stress test elicited a cascade of physiological effects: concentrations of noradrenaline, acetylcholine, cortisol and interleukin-6 in the blood of the subjects increased. The increase of these substances is typical of the stress response, designed to help the body adapt and deal with a stressor: Noradrenaline increases heart rate and blood pressure, makes energy available for the muscles, and decreases digestion, cortisol increases blood sugar to supply more energy to the muscles, and interleukin-6, which peaks a little later than the other hormones after exposure to the stressor, supports immune function.
According to these results, music listening during the recovery phase had intriguing effects on mood as well as stress physiology. The individuals in the music group exhibited significantly better overall mood than the individuals in the control group. In addition, the music group showed significantly higher cortisol levels in response to the stressor than the control group. This means that music listening, and the subsequent amelioration of mood, increased levels of cortisol as a response to stress. This may seem strange to some readers as high cortisol levels, usually associated with chronic stress, are typically described as detrimental to health. Indeed, elevated cortisol levels are associated with severe health problems.
However, the story seems to be very different for cortisol levels related to acute stress. According to the authors, higher cortisol levels after exposure to a stressor may in fact be signs of a healthy response. The stress response is there to temporarily boost physiology and the immune system so that the individual can deal with the stressor, whatever it may be. Therefore, increased release of cortisol after exposure to an acute stressor boosts the capacity of the body to react and overcome the stressful situation.
These novel findings by Koelsch and colleagues suggest that positive mood induced by music listening can thereby support the healthy physiological response to acute stress. Along the same lines, it has previously been found that lower cortisol levels and diminished stress reactions are common in patients with depression.
In summary, the study provides three new discoveries for the connection between mood, stress and music.
1. Perhaps converse to intuition, positive mood seems to boost the stress response
2. Music listening increases cortisol concentration in blood during the stress response via its effect on mood
3. Even though the stress levels in the music group were high, the emotional experience was still more positive
Therefore, the effects of music on stress-management are more complex than previously thought – in addition to being a great way to relax, music listening can make stressful situations easier to bear emotionally, and at the same time enhance the body’s physiological capability of dealing with the stressor. This makes music listening a potent addition to the toolbox for stress management alongside other practices like meditation and mindfulness, and as music listening does not require much effort, it is perhaps the most accessible of the three m’s.
written by ketki karanam
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