Music Therapy For A Substance Use Disorder

Music therapy has been used for years as an effective therapy for children, people with autism, dementia, psychiatric disorders, and Substance Use Disorders (SUD). It uses evidence-based musical interventions to reduce stress, open communication, enhance well-being, and distract patients from uncomfortable symptoms, among other benefits. The American Music Therapy Association 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.” Music therapists can work with patients who are undergoing treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction to identify and articulate feelings, achieve relaxation, build connection, and create a sense of accomplishment.

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There are many types of music therapy, but it is based on 2 fundamental methods: the receptive method and the active method. The receptive listening-based method focuses on listening to pre-recorded or live music selected by a therapist. It can be used as a relaxation exercise to treat depression and anxiety. It can also be used as an analytical exercise. The active method is experiential and involves both the therapist and the patient playing musical instruments and singing. Different therapy techniques may include:

  • Creating art with music
  • Dancing or moving to music
  • Drumming
  • Discussing emotional reactions that music triggers
  • Improvising songs
  • Learning to play an instrument
  • Listening to music
  • Learning music-assisted relaxation techniques
  • Playing instruments
  • Singing along to live or prerecorded songs
  • Writing choreography
  • Writing song lyrics

Any instrument can be used in music therapy, and some of the most popular are hand drums, guitar, and piano. The freedom of playing the hand drum gives the patient an opportunity to be expressive and connect with musical rhythms without fear of hitting the wrong note. The guitar is the top instrument used by music therapists, where a patient can learn to play the soothing instrument in a solo or group setting. Pianos are a popular choice and are often used in a group setting, as the instrument sounds are steady and hold the melody. According to The American Music Therapy Association, the specific outcomes that are desired while using music therapy are:

  • Reduced muscle tension
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Decreased anxiety and agitation
  • Increased verbalization
  • Enhanced interpersonal relationships
  • Improved group cohesiveness
  • Enhanced self-expression and self-awareness
  • Increased motivation
  • Improved perception and differentiation of feelings
  • Improved ability to titrate abreaction, self-soothe, recognize and cope with traumatic triggers

How Can Music Help With Addiction?

Upon entering treatment, a treatment plan will be developed based on the individual patient. Depending on the treatment center, music therapy may be a service offered that can be included in the treatment plan. If music is something that is important to the individual, it is wise to speak to different inpatient treatment centers to make sure that music therapy is offered. The emotions associated with addiction can be overwhelming for the individual who has an SUD. Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, shame, depression, and anger are common, especially if that person feels that they have alienated themselves from important relationships and/or created financial or legal problems because of their addiction. Living with an SUD can result in a lack of self-esteem, poor self-image, regret, despair, and feelings of helplessness due to the loss of relationships (friends and family), homes, jobs, health, freedom, integrity, material possessions, and a sense of reality.

Music therapy can help regulate negative emotions and promote self-growth. In group sessions, participants can enjoy the sense of community as they learn new songs together and work as a team. Groups may communicate by brainstorming music video ideas, listening to and discussing music, reading informational articles for discussion, viewing music videos, and singing solo or in a group. Music Therapist Kathleen Killeen says she “observes a fraternal camaraderie in the majority of her group patients that they might never have encountered in their own families or communities.” Patients may feel a sense of belonging that once seemed unattainable.

Working on self-esteem is another key component of music therapy. Learning a new instrument can be very challenging and takes time and dedication. The feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction upon learning a new song or technique can build self-esteem and help the person recovering from addiction build confidence and pride in their achievements. This confidence can help in other parts of life, such as decision making, managing stress, and coping with cravings. Self-expression is part of music and dancing and doing so can help patients feel more comfortable speaking freely. Music therapy improves openness within interpersonal relationships. It can be difficult to verbalize unpleasant thoughts and feelings, especially if someone has experienced a form of trauma. The music therapist can better connect with their patient on an emotional level using music, creating a non-threatening opportunity for communication.

Is Music Therapy Right For Me?

There are many options when choosing therapies for a substance use disorder, such as animal-assisted therapy, meditation therapy, and holistic therapies such as massage, spiritual, and art therapy. When selecting a treatment center, it’s important to note the types of therapy that they have available. Once you arrive at a rehabilitation facility, professionals will work with you to create a treatment plan which may include music therapy. You do not need to already know how to play an instrument or have a particular passion for music; anyone can benefit from exploring this type of therapy as a form of self-expression. Contact a treatment provider to find rehab options that offer music therapy.