Listen Away Your Stress with Music

Cindy Roe and Marie-Lise Baroutjian

NY Project Hope is a crisis counseling program that provides support and resources to help people cope with the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Let there be songs to fill the air- R. Hunter

colorful illustration of musical notesGiven the impacts to our lives that have come about due to the COVID pandemic, being stressed out is certainly understandable.  However, while feeling overwhelmed, worried, irritable, isolated, angry or sad are all normal reactions to what’s been happening, it doesn’t mean that we have to be at the mercy of those feelings or the stress that drives them.  One easy to use technique that can help ease stress is listening to music (or for those virtuosos among us, creating music).  But have you ever stopped to consider why music can be so soothing and relaxing for us?   Read on to learn more about how music resonates in our minds and bodies to bring about a state of calm and relaxation.

man enjoying music with headphonesUnlike spoken language, which is processed in two very small areas of the brain’s temporal lobe, music lends its calming effects to many different parts of the brain:

  • The nucleus accumbens, which is often called the “pleasure center” of the brain, releases large amounts of the feel-good chemical dopamine throughout the body.
  • In the amygdala, the part of the brain which governs emotions, this dopamine dump gets triggered when we hear music that we like, so our mood improves.
  • The hippocampus, which is like the core processor of the brain, is the seat of memory and learning. Music, especially music that we like, quickly conjures up good memories and the corresponding emotions that we’ve associated with it, so we’ve learned that a particular song is equated with specific emotions.  And whenever we hear that music again, even decades later, we’re basically re-experiencing that moment and those feelings from our past.  So, while we might not always remember things like what we had for breakfast, we can easily recall the words to favorite songs from our youth, even if we haven’t heard them in decades.
  • The hypothalamus, the region that helps maintain the status quo of the body by controlling things like metabolism, heart rate, respiration, and sleep, is the connection point between the brain and the pituitary and adrenal glands, which control the body’s stress response. When we’re anxious or stressed, the hypothalamus triggers these other glands to release the stress hormone cortisol, which causes quick spikes in our pulse, blood pressure, and breathing. When we listen to pleasant music, the rush of dopamine turns off the stress response.  The result?  Our heart and breathing rates return to normal, while the good feelings from the dopamine register in the amygdala, leaving us in a more relaxed state.
  • dad dancing with kidsThe putamen acts to regulate the movement of muscles and physical coordination. When dopamine increases in this area from hearing music that we like, we’re motivated to tap our feet or dance to the rhythm.  This part of the brain basically syncs with the beat of the music, telling our body how to respond.

De-stress To The Beat! 

Here’s some tips to get you started with lowering your stress the musical way:

    • Use familiar music that you like-if you don’t like a certain type of music, it may leave you feeling irritated rather than relaxed.
    • Match Your Mood-Start off by doing a quick check-in of your feelings, and choose music that matches what you’re feeling in terms of volume, tempo, or speed of the music, which is based on the number of beats per minute, and timbre, which refers to the specific sounds made by instruments. If you’re feeling anxious, angry, or irritated, for example, your heart is probably beating fast, so start off with a song that’s close to the rhythm of your pulse, as loud as you want, and that features instruments that resonate with your current mood.
    • harp closeupWork from where you are towards where you want to be-add additional songs to your playlist so that each is progressively slower and lower in tempo and volume and that feature other “softer” instruments. Best bets as per music therapists include stringed instruments such at the violin or harp; flutes; drums.  Plus, music mixed with other sounds, like ocean waves, thunder, or rain also add the calming properties of nature.
    • Lastly, about 30 mins of music with songs that run about three minutes each should be enough to bring about a more calm and relaxed state of mind.
    • Here’s a short video highlighting the positive effects of music on our emotions.

Prefer to talk it out?  While these tips can be helpful in managing stress, it’s also important to remember that, particularly now- given the ways that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed so much about daily life- feeling stressed out is a normal and completely common reaction.  Asking for help if you’re feeling overwhelmed is always okay, whether from a family member, friend, or spiritual advisor, and the Crisis Counselors for NY Project Hope at Independent Living are always available to help, since sometimes it can be helpful to talk to someone you don’t know. Want to know more about how we can help?  Give us a call at 845-762-2275-talking to us is always free, voluntary, and confidential.

Visit Independent Living Inc on Facebook, Instagram, or on the web at for more blogs, tips and videos on stress management techniques and coping strategies. #iliprojecthope.

Cindy Roe and Marie-Lise Baroutjian are crisis counselors from Independent Living, Inc. working on with the NY Project Hope program.

the logo for New York Project Hope coping with covid