When Tom Sweitzer tested positive for COVID-19 over the summer, he ended up in the hospital for a week with a case of pneumonia. After two or three days, he did what he would tell any of his clients to do: He put on a song, listened, and breathed along to the music.
Sweitzer is the co-founder and creative director of A Place to Be, a non-profit organization in Middleburg, Virginia that supports people struggling from a wide variety of emotional, physical, behavioral or mental problems through music therapy. The employees of the organization are all certified therapists carrying many of the same responsibilities as they would in traditional therapy, holding private counseling sessions or group programs. But they also use music as a method to help their clients improve their well-being. This mode of therapy seems especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I always say that music keeps you company. We are all in a place right now where isolation and loneliness is pretty much a way of life for many people,” Sweitzer says. “Music can fill in those gaps.”
Your Brain on Music
Jesse Dollimont, a clinician who works for Canadian practice JB Music Therapy, says that when a person listens to a song, the music simultaneously engages with regions of the brain involved in memory, emotion, physical movement and communication. Two brain areas that respond most strongly to music are the amygdala and the hippocampus, core parts of the limbic system which controls emotional processing and memory. As a result, music has a strong ability to help people tune into their feelings quickly and help them express those emotions to others. Through the application of music, therapists can help patients build confidence, relieve stress or anxiety, process trauma or deal with other mental health issues.
“On a really fundamental level, in terms of how it interacts with our brain, [music] anchors us to the present,” Dollimont says. “It can allow us to move through and remember and come to terms with the past. And it can be a way to express our fears of the future, and have that validated.”
Read more: Why Lo-Fi Music Draws Listeners In
Dollimont says that in the pandemic, JB Music Therapy has begun conducting virtual music therapy sessions for the first time. Many of her patients have been struggling with increased depression, social isolation and uncertainty for the future. Video call sessions work to address these issues, despite a slight decrease in the impact for patients when compared to in-person sessions.
When listening to a song you like, the musical interaction releases dopamine, serotonin and endorphins in the brain, helping to alleviate depression. In addition, the act of listening to or playing music with someone has been shown to strengthen social bonds, which has been valuable for people self-quarantining. Videos from early in the pandemic captured this with Italians in quarantine singing together from their balconies. Being able to control the music you listen to also helps people who have had their circumstances disrupted from the pandemic to feel a sense of stability at a very uncertain time.
Dollimont says music also helps to validate emotional experiences. When people are sad or angry, they tend to gravitate toward sad or angry songs. Rather than increasing those emotions, however, listening to the music helps to stabilize the person and helps them feel like the issues they are going through are universal rather than personal. As such, listening to sad music can be extremely useful for people struggling in the pandemic because it can help validate their emotional reaction to their situation.
“Music plays a profound role in helping folks navigate tough times,” Dollimont says. “It gives us a tangible experience of ‘I’m not alone in this. Someone else has experienced this.’”
Just Keep Breathing
Sweitzer says that one common mode of music therapy is to help people relax through breathing techniques. In sessions, the music therapist plays a song, and leads the patients in breathing in and out with phrases. Afterwards, the therapist leads a discussion where they break apart the lyrics of the song and talk about how it made the patient feel, using the music as a platform to discuss further issues or feelings.
Sweitzer currently runs a therapy group via Zoom for COVID-19 survivors and says that playing music has helped patients open up about their struggles with the virus. In one meeting, he played the song “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera, and during the discussion afterwards, the song prompted one patient to open up about her insecurities about her hair falling out after struggling with COVID.
Read more: Has the Stress of COVID Affected Our Brains?
“That song right there, 'Beautiful,' prompted an entire discussion in a therapeutic, grounded, safe place,” Sweitzer says. “And that's what makes us different than just musicians. We are trained as therapists. So I know how to make a safe place. I know how to surround the clients we're working with music, but we have the ability to work out therapeutically with them.”
Sweitzer notes that even outside of music therapy sessions, playing and listening to music can be a stress reliever for people struggling during the pandemic. For one of his recent clients — a mom who felt overwhelmed taking care of her kids at home — he recommended she find time in the day to take breaks and listen to music she enjoys. For one of his therapy groups, consisting of elderly patients who haven’t left their house since March, he recommends that they make playlists of songs they find soothing, to help them during particularly stressful days.
“It doesn’t even really have to be powerfully emotional music. It can be music from your past, music that makes you dance, music that makes you laugh,” Sweitzer says. “Something that lifts that mental depression for a little bit, so you might be able to breathe or think differently.”