It is a known fact that stress is related to poor individual health which is directly proportional to increase in substantial financial costs for the society. As a result, the development of cost effective stress prevention or stress management approaches has become an important endeavor.
Music has been shown to beneficially affect stress-related physiological, as well as cognitive, and emotional processes. Thus, the use of listening to music as an economic, non-invasive, and highly accepted intervention tool has received special interest in the management of stress and stress-related health issues.
The experience of stress arises when an individual perceives more than what he actually deserves from the environment. Accordingly, physiologic stress effects are regulated from top to down in the central nervous system starting with cognitive stress component which says ‘I can’t cope with the situation and then comes the sub-cortical processes within the limbic system which leads to ‘anxiety’. Both areas forward their messages that ‘I am in danger!’ via neuronal pathways to a central control system, the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is closely intertwined with two major stress systems, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Together, the HPA axis and the SNS orchestrate various psychological and physiological processes to ensure the maintenance of the homeostasis of the organism that is challenged by the experience of stress.
The main effector of the HPA axis is the so-called ‘stress’ hormone cortisol; its concentration is measured and evaluated in order to have an index for HPA axis activation. Salivary alpha-amylase (sAA) is a novel biochemical index for sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity. Both parameters obtained particular interest in stress research as unlike more traditional blood-derived stress markers (e.g. epinephrine and norepinephrine), they can conveniently be assessed in saliva. Taken together, the experience of stress is a multi-faceted phenomenon that comprises cognitive and emotional components that are closely intertwined with physiological systems, whose messengers / effectors found in saliva can be applied to objectively measure stress responses.
Research on potentially beneficial effects of music listening on HPA axis functioning, i.e. on stress-induced cortisol release, has only recently been established. Significant positive changes in cortisol were reported when listening to music before and / or during medical interventions which were considered stressful (decreases production of cortisol) and after such interventions (greater reductions in cortisol were noticed).
Another line of research has focused on the effects of music on anxiety, which may be considered an adaptive response to the experience of stress. Given that music listening can trigger activity in brain regions linked to the experience of (intense) emotions, listening to music might also modulate anxiety levels induced by the experience of stress. Indeed, a decrease in anxiety after listening to music is the most consistent findings reported in field studies with patients and laboratory-based studies.
In sum, it appears that listening to music has the inherent ability to decrease the psychobiological stress response. Listening to music can have a tremendous relaxing effect on our minds and bodies. Music can have a beneficial effect on our physiological functions, slowing the pulse and heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and decreasing the levels of stress hormones. Music, in short, can act as a powerful stress management tool in our lives.
As music can absorb our attention, it acts as a distraction at the same time it helps to explore emotions. This means it can be a great aid to meditation, helping to prevent the mind wandering.
Musical preference varies widely between individuals, so only you can decide what you like and what is suitable for each mood. But even if you don’t usually listen to classical music it may be worth giving it a try when selecting the most calming music.
When people are very stressed, there is a tendency to avoid actively listening to music. Perhaps it feels like a waste of time, not helping to achieve anything. But as we know, productivity increases when stress is reduced, so this is another area where you can gain vast rewards. It just takes a small effort to begin with.