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What is music therapy? First, did you know that fewer than half of the people who attend a treatment program will complete it for one reason or another? According to the 2008 Treatment Episode Data Set, 25% of patients ages 12 and older simply drop out of their chosen treatment programs. This fact has led the industry to find alternatives that make drug treatment more effective, and frankly, more fun for everyone involved. Music therapy does just that.

People with drug addictions must get in touch with their deepest emotions and often spend weeks in residential facilities trying to work through their issues…which doesn’t seem very fun. Necessary, but not fun. But music therapy offers a wide range of possibilities for treating drug addiction and other substance use disorders, as well as the underlying mental health issues that feed the addiction disease in many cases. Music does so by affecting the release of dopamine in our brains (which drugs also do, but in a different way), which results in a sense of wellbeing or pleasure.

Music therapists must be certified by the American Music Therapy Association that sets the standards of practice, code of ethics, and professional competencies for all therapists in this field.

Understanding How Addiction Works in the Brain

The human brain is made up of several distinct tools that work together to communicate our thoughts and feelings throughout our bodies.  These tools consist of:

  • Neurons
  • Neurotransmitters
  • Receptors
  • Transporters

Put all together, these tools sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but when we break them down into their individual jobs, they make more sense.

Neurons are brain cells that send and receive messages. They are the speakers and recording devices of the human brain stereo system.  Neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry messages from one neuron to another – remember, all neurons are capable of sending and receiving messages.  The receptors are the parts of the neuron that receive a message.  Finally, the transporters suck the excess messages back into the original neuron in the case of an overflow.

What kind of messages do the neurons release? There are many, but the one that concerns most people affected by the disease of addiction is the neurotransmitter known as dopamine.  Dopamine is directly related to the pleasure we feel in specific situations.  This particular neurotransmitter can also regulate emotion (how we feel), cognition (how we think and make decisions), and movement (how our bodies respond to our conscious muscle-control messages.)

Drugs interfere with the ability of the human brain to correctly manufacture dopamine, release it into the synapse (the space between the two communicating neurons), and suck up the overflow of dopamine in the brain when there is too much.  This excessive amount of dopamine is what causes the euphoria that most people experience when they use drugs.  Too much dopamine created by the artificial process of ingesting drugs can eventually create an atmosphere where the addict’s brain is unable to produce natural dopamine.  This leads to an inability to feel, think properly, and make decisions.  In other words, the addict has become brain damaged.

Music Therapy Helps With Disorders Related to Addiction

Many individuals who suffer from addiction also suffer from a dual diagnosis condition, such as major depression. These co-morbid diagnoses could be partly responsible for the drug abuse problems or they could be the result of the drug use.  Regardless of the reasons the other condition exists, the treatment program selected must address both issues simultaneously.  Music therapy has been shown to help in the following situations:

  • Chronic pain
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mental illness
  • Behavioral problems

What Can Music Therapy Do to Help Addiction?

According to the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, music stimulates certain activities in the brain than can assuage the effects of addiction.  For instance, music can help produce GABA inhibitors.  These neurotransmitters are responsible for the balancing of the neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine.  If the brain is producing the right amount of this important neurotransmitter, then the brain can properly monitor the amount of dopamine released and retrieved between neurons.  They prevent the receptors from becoming over-stimulated.

Another benefit of music has been proven time and time again in everyday settings. Have you ever been down and put on your favorite music to lift your spirits?  How many times have you been driving in a car and “that one song” comes on the radio?  You find yourself screaming, “Turn it up!” and for the next few minutes, you are happy.  Even if it is your favorite sad song, you can get lost in it and it makes you feel better for having heard the melody and the lyrics.

This isn’t a strange or unique occurrence. The truth is that music affects the release of dopamine in our brains, just like drugs, and just like any other activity that makes us feel good.  The same dopamine that is released in excess when we use drugs is released in the correct proportions when we listen to or create music. Music makes us feel better.

When dealing with an addiction, it is important to retrain the neurons in the brain to create the neurotransmitters, like dopamine, that are responsible for making us feel good about ourselves, and our lives.

Do Music Therapists Have Training?

Most people who choose to work in the field of music therapy are musicians.  They love music, and they love sharing music.  This does not mean that when you enter an exclusive residential rehab for substance abuse that you will be in the care of an out-of-work lounge singer or subway guitarist.  There is much more to becoming a music therapist than knowing how to bend a C chord.

The American Music Therapy Association sets the guidelines for the professional requirements for music therapists in the United States.  In order to work within the industry, an individual must hold a bachelor’s degree (at least) in music therapy, and they must have earned that degree from an accredited school.  The student must then go on to complete 1,200 hours of clinical work and take part in a supervised internship.  Finally, once they’ve completed their training, they must pass a board certification.

The American Music Therapy Association also sets the bar for the standards of practice, code of ethics, and professional competencies – the basic level of skills that an entry level therapist should possess.

Types of Music and Their Benefits

Music is incredibly personal. There are certain songs that have touched our lives and will bring back impulses and memories that can be so strong they might even promote cravings to the addictive substances we’ve decided to fight.  Music therapy is more than simply listening to music to feel better.  There are certain types and styles of music that promise possible benefits:

  • Blues: This style of music can help us come to terms with the loss of relationships due to our drug use and abuse, and it can restore motor function that has been negatively affected by drug addiction by stimulating the cerebellum.
  • Songwriting/lyric analysis: Writing music lyrics or studying lyrics written by others can create honestly within ourselves by forcing us to confront our truths about life, relationships and other emotional dependencies.
  • Drumming: Studies have shown that organized drumming (drum circles) can induce relaxation and enhance brain-wave synchronization.  It can help release emotional trauma and assist an addict with self-reintegration.

Did Someone Say Fun?

A recent study conducted by the University of Queensland, et al, found that individuals involved in cognitive behavioral therapy for substance abuse really like music therapy.  One of the greatest challenges, according the study, is finding ways to engage those seeking therapy in a way that makes them want to come back, week after week, to help themselves recover from addiction.  In the Australian study, the researchers found a 75-percent attendance rate, with more than 80 percent of the participants saying that they would do the program again.  When measuring the motivation and overall enjoyment of the program, the participants rated their experience as 4 or better out of a possible 5.

Have you ever attended a therapy session where you felt you didn’t belong?  Almost half of the participants in this study stated that the music aspect made them feel as though they were decidedly part of the group. This feeling of acceptance can encourage recovering addicts to stick with their treatment.

Rehab is difficult.  It takes dedication and determination, and not all aspects of it are going to be appealing to everyone.  Music therapy can take some of the edge off the entire process and give the participants of these types of programs something to look forward to, every day.

If you’d like help locating a treatment program that incorporates music therapy into their offerings, contact us today. We can also answer any questions you have about this type of treatment process.

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