Seventeenth century writer William Congreve once noted that "music hath charms to soothe the savage beast." Many people have noted the same effect when dealing with the savage beasts of stress and anxiety. Music can calm us and help us to think more clearly at times when life is demanding or difficult, as well as offering a wide variety of other health benefits. According to a recent study, music soothes stress by reducing our innate physiological responses to challenging situations.
Rising Levels of Stress in the Contemporary World
Also known as the fight-or-flight reflex, the human stress response evolved over centuries and millennia as hunters and gatherers. When humans encounter a challenge that is beyond our coping mechanisms, we release hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol, both of which are designed to help us either physically confront a threat or successfully escape it. We have an increase in heart rate and breathing, allowing our muscles more oxygen with which to run or fight. Our livers pour glucose into our bloodstreams, offering fast energy. In addition, blood flow is shunted away from internal organs to our muscles and extremities.
It is easy to see how this response was immensely beneficial to our distant ancestors, who often faced stress in the form of a snarling animal. However, modern people face stress of a different kind. Our stressors are often psychosocial or related to our careers, where our physiological response is not helpful and in fact may be counterproductive. In addition, we are facing stressful situations more often than our ancestors faced them, which can have a negative effect on our health. As a result, pathological stress is a common cause of both mental and physical illness in the modern world.
The Dangers of Modern Stress
Most Americans reported feeling stressed in 2017. The causes of this stress vary, from politics to money problems to difficulty accessing health care. Regardless of the cause of the stress, the result is the same. People who have chronic, or long term, stress are at high risk of anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses. They may suffer headaches, digestive complaints and have trouble sleeping. Over time, high levels of cortisol can lead to weight gain and metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes. Stress also can contribute to heart disease and other life-threatening illnesses.
How is a modern person to deal with high daily stress levels? Although there are no magic pills, there are several natural ways to deal with stress and other negative emotions to have a healthier, happier, lower-stress life.
How Music Soothes Stress and Negative Emotions
According to new research, music may be an important tool in combating chronic stress. One study put sixty female volunteers into a stressful situation. Researchers divided them into three groups: one that listened to classical music, one that listened to rippling water and one that was not exposed to any special sounds. The groups were then tested for stress response, including cortisol and epinephrine tests as well as measurement of heart rate. The group that listened to classical music had a measurably smaller stress response than the other groups.
Prior studies have found that music has a variety of positive health effects. It lowers our heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate. Calming music even converts our brain waves to a more relaxed and restful pattern called alpha waves. This effect is most noticeable when people listen to music that is around 60 beats per minute -- that is, moderately slow or "largo" music.
Natural Ways to Combat Stress and Improve Your Mood
If you are looking for healthy ways to combat stress, there are several natural approaches that have been proven to be effective. First, incorporate calming music into your daily life. Whether in your car, in your office, or in your bath, music is a great way to reduce both your perception of stress and your physical response to it. Second, try yoga, meditation and other practices that have been found to reduce chronic stress. Many people also find that exercise helps reduce stress levels, which makes sense on an intuitive levels. Our ancestors under stress had to fight or run away from threats -- that is, to exert themselves in response. Last, consider taking herbs that have been shown to lessen the effects of stress. Lavender, passion flower and eleuthero are all safe and effective herbs that have been used for centuries to relieve stress and improve mood.
Many people are struggling to deal with stress and anxiety, which can have negative effects on our mood and our general health. However, there are many safe and natural ways to reduce your stress. Regardless of your occupation or living situation, most of us will be happier and healthier with lower levels of chronic stress in our lives.