Music & Art Therapy for Beating Depression, Anxiety & Stress

Trivia: How many parts of the brain does music affect?  Read on to Find out! 

Because of society’s stressful lifestyle, many of us barely have time to relax or have a moment to assess and express our feelings and emotions.  As a result, lots of emotions get boxed away in our body’s hidden storage places, or we choose to muffle our feelings with maladaptive coping mechanisms.

Music and art work against our destructive storage and silencing of emotions by giving us tools to express ourselves.  When we express ourselves , we cathartically reduce our stress levels and gain a sense of control and a unique sensation of individual freedom.

When I was a little girl, I took violin and art lessons.  My violin lesson was 1 hour every week during regular school hours.  I remember leaving my classwork behind, walking the flight of stairs to my music teacher’s office and playing my violin for an hour.  My music lessons were always refreshing, exciting, stimulating, and though I didn’t know it at the time, were a way for me to reduce my stress level.  When I returned to class after my violin lesson, I always felt more calm, alert, focused, happy and ready to retain scholarly information.  The same is true with my art lessons.  For one day a week, after school, I’d walk down the hill to Sue Hand’s Art Imagery in Shavertown, Pa.  I’d stay there for 2 hours and paint landscapes, stills, portraits and more.  With each swirl of a paintbrush, I forgot the stresses and pressures of life. I was never going to be Van Gogh, but those were two colorful hours of pure bliss and relaxation.  My violin and art lessons continued through high school, and I took advantage of my high school’s wonderful music and art programs as well.  Only in college and medical school, when I felt like I had no time for music and art, did I start to feel more depressed, less inspired, more stressed and far more irritated. What I didn’t know then that I know now, is that I should have made time for a violin and art session each week, as those things would have invigorated me, relaxed me and helped me master my studies. Once I started making time for violin, a little singing, painting and sketching medical cartoons, my mood significantly improved.  It’s so unfortunate that today we’re in an economic recession, and the first things to experience cuts in funding are schools’ art and music programs.  Cutting funds to art and music happens during any recession, which is a Catch-22, since they both are effective ways for reducing stress,  obviously higher during rough economic times.   As a default, at least they are maintained and offered as therapies.


That’s me in the middle….killin’ it with those socks.

  As with aromatherapy, there is not a lot of scientific data to vouch for the mysterious, unique healing properties innate to music and the arts, though mental health professionals are increasingly recommending and utilizing them as supplementary forms of treatment because of their observed effectiveness.  A few randomized trials show that art therapies reduce negative symptoms associated with schizophrenia and help those diagnosed with severe depression.  One study conducted at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine in Singapore analyzed 9 databases and reviewed 17 studies on music’s ability to reduce depressive symptoms in adults.  Results showed that music decreased symptoms of depression, and researchers suggested that depressed individuals listen to their preferred choice of music for at least 3 weeks or more to achieve a long-lasting anti-depressive effect. A small, pilot study conducted at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, showed that art therapy significantly improved depressive symptoms in older adults. Aside from a small amount of scientific data, there is a plethora of anecdotal evidence supporting music’s positive effect on mood.

Another thing you can consider is working with a professional music therapist. Several months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Davida Price for an interview that was published in The Alternative Mental Health News.  Davida is a certified music therapist who works with many people diagnosed with mental disorders, including those with schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, anger management issues and soldiers with PTS.  I asked Davida to explain to me exactly what a music therapist does. Her response was,

     “Often psychotherapists think that they are using music therapy if they bring  a song into a therapy session and have their clients talk about it. Although this is something that music therapists do, this is actually using music therapeutically.  This is because music therapy is actually a health profession that requires the minimum of a Bachelor’s degree, a 1,040 internship and completion of a national board certification exam.  A music therapist might have a client make music, improvise music, learn songs or write songs. Depending on the goal, the appropriate music session is used.”

I specifically asked her about effective music therapies for anxiety and depression. Davida said,

       “…for a person who needs to work on creating a self-soothing anchor for decreasing anxiety, he or she may identify a song that provokes a pleasant image, then practice imagining that image while listening to the song.  If this is practiced, then the client may experience a reduction in anxiety simply by humming or thinking a few lines of the song.  For other clients, experiencing a drum circle can be transformative in that it provides, in the moment, relief from depression or anxiety, because of how music-making affects the brain.  For a depressed person, I have found it incredibly transforming to engage that person in songwriting about something that lightens them.  It might be a 45 minute intervention that goes from writing verses about the struggle of depression and into a chorus about overcoming depression. The cool thing about making music is that it puts someone in his or her body and often causes an immediate physical response.  For anxiety, simply humming or singing a song might get enough oxygen to the brain that the body begins to slow down or the mind begins to focus on something else. Unlike most other things, making music affects 9 parts of the brain, so it can distract the mind from itself.”



Sometimes, you just gotta Pluck.

 Next I asked Davida if people can do their own forms of music therapy at home.    Here’s what she told me:

1)      “Mindfulness exercises are wonderful for anyone wanting to practice separating thoughts from emotions from actions.  Simply put on your favorite music and either count in your mind or using a piece of paper and a pencil, write down or make a mental note of every sound and instrument you hear.  You will hear multiple levels in the music, and even if you don’t know the names or sounds of specific instruments, this exercise will give you the opportunity of practicing being in the moment and paying attention to what you hear.  You can listen to the song as many times as you want until you feel relaxed or feel like you’ve identified everything you hear. “

2)      “Pick a theme song. You might be familiar with the character of Ally McBeal having a theme song, but this really is an awesome idea.  Identify a song that you like.  Have multiple copies of this song so when you’re feeling defeated, you can play this song.  This should be a song that lifts you out of your funk by distracting you and giving you a mental association to something positive.”

3)      Start your day in the shower by doing an “Ohhhhhhhhhahhhhhhh!”  You can even start with your hands at your side and as you can say this, lift your arms up so at the end of the “Ah” your arms are at shoulder height.  Notice how alert you feel sounding your voice and filling your lungs.”

4)      Do a symbolic release of negative thoughts, stress, negative self-talk or bad memories by taking a deep breath in, and as you exhale, rumble with your hands ( like a drum roll) on a table( or ideally a drum). Imagine releasing your negative “energy” out through your breath and the rumble carrying it far away. Repeat as needed.”

      Ever since I learned these things from Davida, I’ve been playing the drums on a variety tables throughout the world while simultaneously releasing negative energy.  I “played the drums” at one restaurant where the waiter thought I was crazy, but it’s okay- restaurants still have to serve perceived, crazy people.  😉 

In addition to Davida’s list of at-home music therapies, I’ve listed some other ways you can assess and express your emotions using music and art.

  Your “ASSESS AND EXPRESS” Music and Art Humanity Tune-up Cheat Sheet: 

1)      Learn to play an instrument and schedule regular practice sessions

2)      Make up instruments, combine them and use them to make up fun and funny songs: ex) silverware against pots and pans, stomp your feet, clap your hands, make strange noises with your mouth and voice, etc.

3)      Make up song lyrics and sing them to a tune you make up.

4)      Depending on what program/system you use to organize your music collection, make up different “playlists” that correspond to different emotions.  For example, I store my songs in Itunes and created different song lists for my various feelings.  One is titled “Happy” for songs that make me happy.  Then there’s “Perky” for songs that will perk me up; “Stress Reduction” list, for songs that help alleviate my anxiety; “Meditative” for songs I use when I want to meditate and “Motivational” for songs that get me moving and motivate me.  I even have one titled “Cry” for songs that make me cry (when I want to cry), because crying reduces cortisol levels, and is a natural way for our body to express itself and alleviate stress.

5)      Sing in the shower or along with the radio while you’re driving, cleaning, working out or just hanging out.  If people don’t like it…screwem’! 😉

6)      Take an art class

7)      Keep a sketch book and draw whatever you feel like drawing. Remember, you don’t have to be Van Gogh. This is purely fun and therapeutic.

8)      Buy a paint set, paint brush, paper, and paint whatever comes to mind.  Even mixing colors is therapeutic!

9)      Start small, at-home arts and crafts projects.   Paint cards, make jewelry, make your own crafts, paint wooden furniture, etc., and if you get good enough, you can give them away as gifts.

10)   Color.  Coloring books shouldn’t be exclusively for kids.  Use colored pencils, crayons, markers and just have fun.

11)   Buy a dry-erase white board and accompanying markers.  Draw whatever comes to mind on the white board.  Exercise your creative juices and write a witty or inspiring quote, slogan or song lyric along with your picture.  (If you hang your whiteboards in hallways, kitchens, etc., it’s a great way to greet or inspire others!)

12)   Be a real Mood-Go-Getter and combine your favorite musical tunes with your favorite art project.  Trust me, you’ll feel refreshed and happier.  The most important step is DOING IT! 

One Response to “Music & Art Therapy for Beating Depression, Anxiety & Stress”

  1. “Music & Art Therapy for Beating Depression, Anxiety & Stress”- Completely agree with you.Music is the best solution to any problem.I’m currently working on the f# minor nocturne! they’re beautiful pieces.Don’t get me wrong, you have to be strong and confident to be successful in just about anything you do – but with music, there’s a deeper emotional component to your failures and successes. If you fail a chemistry test, it’s because you either didn’t study enough, or just aren’t that good at chemistry (the latter of which is totally understandable). But if you fail at music, it can say something about your character. It could be because you didn’t practice enough – but, more terrifyingly, it could be because you aren’t resilient enough. Mastering chemistry requires diligence and smarts, but mastering a piano piece requires diligence and smarts, plus creativity, plus the immense capacity to both overcome emotional hurdles, and, simultaneously, to use that emotional component to bring the music alive.Before I started taking piano, I had always imagined the Conservatory students to have it so good – I mean, for their homework, they get to play guitar, or jam on their saxophone, or sing songs! What fun! Compared to sitting in lab for four hours studying the optical properties of minerals, or discussing Lucretian theories of democracy and politics, I would play piano any day.

    But after almost three years of piano at Orpheus Academy, I understand just how naïve this is. Playing music for credit is not “easy” or “fun” or “magical” or “lucky.” Mostly, it’s really freakin’ hard. It requires you to pick apart your piece, play every little segment over and over, dissect it, tinker with it, cry over it, feel completely lame about it, then get over yourself and start practicing again. You have to be precise and diligent, creative and robotic. And then – after all of this – you have to re-discover the emotional beauty in the piece, and use it in your performance.

Leave a Reply

ZenBands / ZenTones

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This