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Study sheds light on the ability of music therapy to relieve stress

It’s a stress-ridden world. So stressful, that around 75 percent of American adults report experiencing moderate to high levels of stress in a study by the American Psychological Association. To help deal with this pervasive issue, researchers from South Korea’s Sahmyook University suggest using music for reducing stress. The study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, showed that listening to music significantly reduced stress-related indicators, which included high blood pressure and increased heart rate.

How music helps relieve stress

People often refer to cortisol as the stress hormone. Despite getting a bad rap, cortisol is one of the most important hormones in the body. It helps control blood sugar levels and reduces inflammation.

When a person perceives a threat, cortisol, along with adrenaline, triggers a fight-or-flight response. To get a clearer picture of how the two work: When a threat appears, adrenaline will help a person start running, but it is cortisol which will keep the person running. Cortisol stimulates the liver to convert fat into glucose, which produces energy for activity.

When cortisol levels are high, a person is stimulated to stay active and alert. But as people today constantly experience stress, these levels become unregulated, which can have severe effects in the long run. Unregulated cortisol levels can lead to sleep deprivation and constant craving of sugary foods, which might develop into more severe ailments in the future.

Researchers have looked to music therapy as one of the methods to help regulate cortisol levels and reduce stress. For years, music has always been seen as an emotional outlet, but understanding how sound, sound frequencies, and rhythm can also induce healthy effects on the body is still new and will have to be explored more.

For this study, the researchers wanted to measure the effects of music therapy on university students who were under stress. They gathered 64 participants who were divided into two groups: the experimental group (which had 33 students) and the control group (which had 31 students.) They measured cardiovascular indicators (blood pressure and pulse), autonomic nervous activity (standard deviation of the normal-to-normal intervals [SDNN], normalized low frequency, normalized high frequency, and low/high frequency), and subjective stress.

The researchers measured the participants during the experiment: at baseline, after performing stressful tasks, and after the experimental group listened to classical music while the control group simply rested.

The first two measurements did not show much difference, but the data gathered after music therapy had promising revelations. The variables measured between the two groups differed significantly: Those who had music therapy had better results compared to the other group.

The study concluded that listening to music – in this case, classical music – could help relax the body and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This suggested the possibility of extending music therapy to other conditions related to stress. (Related: Music therapy helps reduce depression and increases self-esteem.)

In another study, a team of researchers from the University of Alberta in Canada found that patients, who were three to 11 years old, reported less pain and less distress while having an IV inserted compared to those who did not. In Singapore, a study conducted in Khoo Teck Puat Hospital showed that patients in palliative care engaged in music therapy sessions reported relief from continuous pain.

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