How to Use Music to Relax During Stressful Times

In times of immense stress and adversity, music and the arts are sometimes viewed as nothing more than novelties: Things to be used and enjoyed in happier times. However, music may be able to help the most during these hard times.

It has been proven that listening to music can have a meaningful psychological and physiological impact. Music not only lifts our mood; it also helps lower blood pressure or slow a rapid heartbeat.

Here are tips on how to use music to cope with stress.

The three-minute break

Sometimes, we all just need a break. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to listen to a song you know and love. During the course of the song, close your eyes, listen to the music, and breathe.

If you find your mind wandering, it’s good to acknowledge these thoughts, but then set them aside and return to focusing on the music.

For these three minutes (or however long your song lasts for), simply sit and breathe. Don’t try to clean dishes, watch the news, or plan the rest of your day. This moment is for you, and you can go back to your routine once the song has come to an end. 

The power of the playlist(s)

Playlists can be a great way to stay engaged, brighten your mood, and remain motivated. Be sure to create multiple playlists for various activities and indulge in them throughout the course of the day. You could have one you listen to while you exercise, another one for relaxing, and a third to help you fall asleep.

There is no right or wrong way to create a playlist; it’s important to just listen to the music that fills you with you joy. Find a playlist that speaks to you and can help set the tone for whatever you are doing. If you aren’t sure where to start, try exploring Spotify or YouTube for pre-assembled playlists. 

Get up and dance!

Exercising is a great way to help release stress. If you are feeling overwhelmed, try exercising to music or even just dancing along to your favorite songs.

When you’re sitting still in a quiet or dark room, negative emotions can quickly become magnified. Moving around and singing to music introduces a bombardment of sensory input, helping to redirect your attention away from what is causing you stress or anxiety.

The next time you start listening to your favorite playlist, try moving around when doing so. Don’t just sit and scroll on your phone; fully engage in the music.

“Music not only lifts our mood; it also helps lower blood pressure or slow a rapid heartbeat.”

Use music to fall asleep

A lack of sleep can increase irritability and stress. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, try using a sleep playlist. When creating a sleep playlist, it’s generally best to find music that is slow, flowing, and repetitive. Playlists that are dynamic (in other words, playlists that contain variations in loudness between notes or phrases) will engage your attention and stimulate your mind.

Typically, you want something slow with melodies you can anticipate; but remember, these preferences aren’t one size fits all. If you’re annoyed by a playlist that’s pitched as “relaxing,” that playlist isn’t going to help.

What’s most important is that you choose music that you enjoy and makes you feel good. Don’t forget to make sure the song isn’t so loud that it is keeping you awake. Your playlist should be audible but not distracting.

Play an instrument

If you’re a musician, don’t be afraid to pick up your instrument. Playing your favorite instrument, or even learning a new one, can be a great coping skill.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that learning any new instrument takes time, and this process might not be relaxing. If at any point you find the learning process is creating additional stress, move onto something else.

The same principle is true for those looking to master new songs. If learning to play a new song is helpful for you, then continue to do so, but you may find it more relaxing to play a song you’re already familiar with.

Finally, don’t forget about singing. Singing can be a fun thing to do on your own or with family. The naturally extended exhale you produce when singing can trigger relaxation in a similar way to breathing exercises.

This article was written by Heather Woods, MA, MT-BC, a board certified music therapist at Dana-Farber’s Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living. She is currently leading multiple interactive, online programs centered around music therapy. A full program calendar for the Zakim Center can be found here.