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Music therapy is an alternative and complementary treatment modality that can be beneficial in the treatment of substance addictions. It promotes overall wellness, including pain management, stress management, and relaxation, all of which can help you during your addiction recovery. It is also known as a holistic treatment method and is often offered at holistic drug rehabs, in combination with traditional methods such as psychotherapy, behavioral therapies, and group counseling. Music can influence thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and support a larger integrative treatment plan that includes traditional and holistic therapies.1,2,3
Music and the Brain
Music causes a reaction in the cerebral circuits of the brain, activating areas associated with emotions, memories, and physical movements.3
Music can help treat substance use disorders by:4
- Enhancing thinking, decision-making, and planning that take place in the frontal lobe
- Influencing reactions like fear and pleasure that occur in the amygdala
- Regulating emotions and improving memory in the hippocampus
- Releasing dopamine in the putamen area of the brain that regulates body movement
The nucleus accumbens releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain influencing feels of reward and pleasure. Drugs and alcohol trigger the nucleus accumbens to flood the reward center of the brain with dopamine. Since music also triggers this area to release dopamine, music therapy can be a natural reward for those in recovery.4
Music works with these significant brain parts to heal the body from traumas, including those caused by substance use disorders.5 It may also relieve the stress associated with substance use disorders that prevent you from getting restorative sleep and make it hard to regulate moods.
Music and Stress Reduction
Recovery from an alcohol or drug addiction can be stressful. Chronic stress can then lead to physical and psychological complications. It takes implementing positive factors, sometimes called recovery capital, to overcome the tough times to avoid relapse. Studies often refer to recovery capital as social supports, spiritual connections, and affiliations with therapeutic resources. The claim is they lead to higher life satisfaction and less stress during recovery, even after a year or more of maintaining sobriety.5
Music therapy for addiction recovery may fall under the category of recovery capital, given that it is proven to help reduce stress. Stressors like people, places, and things that trigger a craving for drugs or alcohol can be challenging to manage without a plan, and music therapy can be a beneficial and effective part of that plan.6
Music Therapy Interventions
Interventions and approaches in music therapy are considered either active or receptive interventions. Examples of active interventions include composing music, improvisation, and recreating, while listening to music is a receptive approach. Only certified music therapists should only provide these interventions. They have the knowledge and experience to match specific music treatments with the needs of the person in recovery.7
Songwriting can relieve stress when you put your emotions into writing. Also, you may find it easier to write about substance use’s effect on your life rather than verbally communicating it to a therapist. Plus, recording musical compositions allows you to listen to them outside of the therapy session.7
Improvisation is one of the most commonly used techniques among music therapists. There are two variations: free and structured. Examples include freestyling, interplay on piano, or mantra singing.7
Recreating or Performing
Performing existing songs may be used to help you express yourself more freely, reduce stress, and release tension.7
Listening to Music
Working with a music therapist, you can create varying playlists to reach specific goals. For example, if you want to relax, you can create a playlist with only songs that help you feel calm.7
While music therapy interventions promote relaxation and self-expression, there is also the chance that a particular song could remind you of when you were using substances or lyrics could trigger a craving. But with the right therapist, negative associations or triggers in music can often be unlearned or reversed.7,8
Music Therapy for Co-Occurring Disorders
Many people with substance use disorders also have mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety. This is known as co-occurring disorders or a dual diagnosis. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, 7.7 million people in the United States have co-occurring disorders.9
The relationship between addiction and mental health disorders is complex. Substance use can cause distressing mental health symptoms and mental health conditions can lead to drug and alcohol use. Studies show that music therapy, when combined with traditional treatment options, is more effective than conventional treatment alone. Also, music therapy can improve readiness to change, engagement in treatment, and adherence to the treatment plan.9
Research supports the benefits of music therapy for various populations, including people with co-occurring disorders.10 Interventions like music discussion, music instruction, group participation, music listening, and expressive music have helped people in treatment better express why they are in recovery.10 Other interventions that may be beneficial include using music and art to process feelings about yourself and your identity. Those with co-occurring disorders who participated in music therapy were more engaged in treatment. There were fewer crises, improved social skills, enhanced coping skills, and groups got along better.10
Benefits of Music Therapy
Researchers report the benefits of music therapy for people with substance use disorders. Examples include:11
- Examining lyrics and writing songs positively changes emotions.
- Drumming promotes relaxation.
- Moving to music decreased depression, anxiety, and anger.
- Combining music therapy with the 12-Step approach creates positive outcomes.
Traditional approaches like cognitive-behavioral therapy work well in conjunction with music therapy.11 Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a form of talk therapy that focuses on changing negative thought patterns. The theory is that thoughts influence feelings and those feelings cause behaviors. If thoughts and feelings are negative, actions will also be. Therefore, replacing negative thoughts with positive ones can eventually lead to positive behaviors.12 Music interventions can be incorporated in each session.
Outcomes of music therapy for substance use disorders have been noted in research studies and reported by the American Music Therapy Association. They found the following benefits of music therapy:13
- Reduced muscle tension
- Decreased anxiety
- Improved self-expression
- Improved personal relationships
- Improved self-esteem
- Improved ability to recognize triggers
- Improved self-awareness
Who Provides Music Therapy?
Music therapists use interventions with music, both vocal and instrumental, to facilitate positive changes in therapeutic settings. They help assist you in expressing yourself verbally and nonverbally, as well as help you improve social skills, problem-solving skills, conflict-resolution skills, concentration and focus, and relaxation skills.14
They are an integral part of the treatment team at a drug or alcohol rehab program, especially those that take a holistic approach to addiction recovery and prioritize healing the mind, body, and spirit.15
Music therapists receive specialized education and training. Most music therapists have college degrees and have passed national exams like the Certification Board for Music Therapists or another state-level certification.15 And because of their specialized training and education, they understand the effects and benefits of each music intervention and are able to create a recovery plan that takes your unique needs into consideration.16
Holistic Treatment Centers
Music therapy is one of many complementary and alternative treatments offered in holistic treatment centers. If you are wondering what music therapy is and how it works, holistic treatment providers can answer it and provide examples of how they incorporate it into treatment plans.
Holistic treatment centers may also offer:
- Art therapy
- Equine therapy
- Mindfulness and meditation
Working with a music therapist in a treatment center for substance use starts with an assessment to create a music therapy treatment plan. You will work together to set goals for treatment. Music therapy is part of a larger treatment plan developed by your treatment team.
We can help in your search for the right treatment center. Call our 24/7 helpline at 800-926-9037 (Who Answers?) for help finding a facility that offers music therapy in substance addiction programs.
- American Music Therapy Association. (2005). AMTA official definition of music therapy.
- Mays, K. L., Clark, D. L., & Gordon, A. J. (2008). Treating addiction with tunes: a systematic review of music therapy for the treatment of patients with addictions. Substance Abuse, 29(4):51-9.
- National Institutes of Health. (2018). Sound health: music gets you moving and more.
- University of Central Florida (2021). Your brain on music. Pegasus.
- Laudet, A. B., & White, W. L. (2008). Recovery capital as prospective predictor of sustained recovery, life satisfaction, and stress among former poly-substance users. Substance Use Misuse, 43(1):27-54.
- Sinha, R. (2008). Chronic stress, drug use, and vulnerability to addiction. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1141, 105–130.
- de Witte, M., Lindelauf, E., Moonen, X., Stams, G. J., & van Hooren, S. (2020). Music therapy interventions for stress reduction in adults with mild intellectual disabilities: perspectives from clinical practice. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 572549.
- Ghetti, C., Chen, X. J., Fachner, J., & Gold, C. (2017). Music therapy for people with substance use disorders. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2017(3), CD012576.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Co-morbidity: substance abuse and other mental disorders.
- Vega, V. (2017, January 31). Music therapy with addiction and co-occurring disorders. Music and Medicine, 9(1), 45-49.
- Aletraris, L., Paino, M., Edmond, M. B., Roman, P. M., & Bride, B. E. (2014). The use of art and music therapy in substance abuse treatment programs. Journal of Addictions Nursing, 25(4), 190–196.
- Chand, S. P., Kuckel, D. P., & Heucker, M. R. (2021). StatPearls. Cognitive Behavior Therapy.
- American Music Therapy Association. (2021). Music therapy interventions in trauma, depression, & substance abuse: selected references and key findings.
- American Music Therapy Association. (2021). Music therapy and mental health.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2018). Mind and body approaches for substance use disorders: what the science says.
- Edwards E. (2012). The role of complementary, alternative, and integrative medicine in personalized health care. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 37(1), 293–295.