How Listening to Music May Ease Traumatic Stress

When our lives are disrupted by the stress of a traumatic experience, like the pandemic, our mental health can be compromised.  The constant disruption in our routines, the possibility or reality of loved ones becoming ill, the potential exposure to a life-threatening virus and the overall uncertainty of the situation makes it difficult for the mind to remain in a healthy, balanced state.

Stress is something we deal with as a daily part of our lives and isn’t always harmful.  Traumatic stress, however, can have negative and lasting psychological impacts and, at its extreme, can manifest as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to the DSM-5, PTSD involves a precipitating negative life event with “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence.”  This type of exposure can suspend our bodies and minds in a prolonged state of distress, depleting our mental resources and leading to exhaustion as well as physiological and emotional damage.

Thankfully, everyone—kids, adults, elders, first responders and essential workers—can use music to boost their ability to cope with stress and inoculate them from the downstream negative effects of living through a traumatic experience like the pandemic.

Your Brain and Body on Music

Listening to music that you personally enjoy reduces physiological symptoms of stress, lowering heart rate and blood pressure and decreasing the production of stress-related hormones like cortisol.  Music’s calming effect helps us shift away from “fight-or-flight” stress responses by activating our parasympathetic nervous system, allowing us to conserve energy, rest and replenish.  By bringing us back to a healthy baseline, music can put us in a better frame of mind with the power to alleviate psychological symptoms of nervousness, restlessness and feelings of worry.  Listening to music can be such a powerful stress reliever that when used before, during, or after surgery as an intervention, it significantly reduces patient pain and anxiety.

Perhaps the most potent part of music is that it’s pleasurable. The joy music brings us activates reward circuitry in our brains, bathing our minds in feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, which can lift our mood and help us process complex emotions.

How to Get Started Listening to Music for Greater Health

Using music to maintain your mental health right now is very simple.  Turn on the radio, stream your favorite tracks, sing in the shower, hum a tune.  The beauty of music is that it’s readily available from the comfort of your own home. The healing power of music cannot be contained.

Here are some new ways to listen to your favorite music during the pandemic:

This is article is a part of IAM Lab’s regularly updated COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide. Be sure to check the Guide for the latest, evidence-based tips on how the arts can support our wellbeing during the pandemic.

We would also like to hear from you: Are you, your loved ones or colleagues dealing with specific issues and want to learn more about art-based solutions?  Are you already using the arts to help you cope?   

Please share your thoughts, ideas and concerns with us at  Be well and stay safe.

Lead image: Berna Namoglu / Shutterstock

COVID-19 Mental Health Music Neuroscience Public Health