Benefits of Music Therapy in Substance Abuse Treatment

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By Randi J. Heisler

Music therapy is one of the holistic treatment options that can be used to help people who are struggling with substance use disorders.

This form of treatment for drug or alcohol addiction is often particularly appealing to people who struggle to articulate their thoughts in traditional therapy sessions.

What Is Music Therapy?

The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) defines music therapy as “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.”

In music therapy treatments, people don’t simply listen to music. They engage their emotions, learn their motivations, and discover the barriers to recovery through various exercises. For people suffering from a substance use disorder, music therapy can create self-confidence and an ability to communicate their feelings–especially for those who find it difficult to express themselves in words.

Music therapy is useful whether the person receiving treatment has musical experience or not. It’s not about learning to play an instrument or singing like a rock star. The goal of music therapy is to use the experience to work towards specific recovery goals.

What Benefits Does Music Therapy Have for People with Substance Use Disorders?

No two people with substance use disorders are exactly alike, but music therapy can offer a wide range of benefits in treating drug or alcohol addiction. For example:

  • Communication – encourages group cooperation and increases nonverbal expression
  • Physical rehabilitation – helps pain management and promotes movement
  • Motivation to receive treatment – helps create positive emotions which promote a desire to participate willingly in substance abuse treatment
  • Emotional support – stimulating the creative process and confidence-building
  • Outlet to express feelings – creating music can convey feelings not easily verbalized
  • Stress relief and relaxation – music activities and listening can have a calming effect
  • Anti-depressant/anger management tool – positive emotions released during music therapy can combat depression, anxiety, and anger

What Forms Does Music Therapy Take?

There are a variety of avenues through which people receiving treatment can benefit from music therapy. No one form is more valuable than another, and each can be used individually or collectively to help a person recover from a substance use disorder.

The licensed music therapist can assess the strengths and needs of each client and find the activities that best suit their situation. This may include:

  • Creating – There are a variety of ways people can release their creativity through music therapy, but the main forms of creation are writing songs (with lyrics or instrumental) and improvisation (creating “on-the-spot”).
    • Songwriting/Composition – Writing music can be a very healing thing, especially for those individuals that find it difficult to verbalize their feelings. Sometimes it’s easier to write a song about a “somebody” than to explain how one feels. Even if a song doesn’t have lyrics, the tone, tempo, volume, and speed can make the listener feel emotions and display how the composer feels.
    • Improvisation – This can be done individually or in a group setting. It can be the first step of creating a new composition or it can be a reaction to a piece being listened to. In a group setting, each person listens to those around them and then chooses how to add their sound to the mix. Generally, this is done with drums as it’s simple enough for even those with no musical training to make a beat.
  • Performing – You don’t necessarily need to perform in front of a crowd, but to perform a song oneself brings about completely different feelings and emotions than listening to another perform it. A performance can include singing, playing an instrument, or dancing.
  • Analysis – To analyze music is to take it apart to see how it works. One can analyze the words to a song, discovering how the writer was feeling and/or how it pertains to their own situation. One can also analyze the music itself. What musical style is it? Do parts repeat? By looking at these aspects of a song, the person analyzing can discover what parts/feelings the composer was trying to convey and how the song elements can parallel their own situation.
  • Relaxation – Using music as a form of relaxation and distraction can help keep those suffering from substance use disorder from relapsing, or at the very least help calm them in situations where they would have previously turned to their substance of choice.
  • Games – There are many forms of competitive games and musical activities licensed music therapists can use, from introductions and “breaking the ice” to interacting. Generally, these are group activities.

Why Is Music Therapy Successful?

Studies have shown that music therapy can be beneficial in exposing people suffering from substance use disorder to non-drug induced emotions, helping them to realize this possibility in their lives. Music therapy helps people experience predominantly positive emotions without the need for substance use.

Music therapy has also been successful in helping individuals find coping skills with which to manage their anxiety, anger, and fear. It can also, when combined with other counseling and therapy techniques, assist with identifying the reasons they turned to substance abuse.

Although music therapy can’t cure addiction on its own, this form of holistic treatment for a substance use disorder can be a helpful tool in finding the path to recovery. When combined with detox, individual counseling, group counseling, family therapy, and other evidence-based treatments for drug or alcohol addiction, music therapy can help you or someone you love break free from the burden of substance abuse.

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