How to use music to boost your wellbeing

Clinical psychologist, musician and mindfulness teacher Emily Toner lets us in on why music is so magical for mental health.

You know those songs that move you in some way – make you laugh, make you cry, make you want to throw your hairdryer at your ex-boyfriend’s head?

It turns out those absolute tunes massively affect our brain.

Speaking to Body+Soul’s daily podcast Healthy-ish, clinical psychologist, mindfulness teacher and Medibank ambassador Emily Toner says that there’s heaps of research and practice going into this topic within the scientific community.

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“From reducing stress and anxiety, improving depression symptoms, helping people manage chronic and acute pain – music can even help us with that heart health and our blood pressure and can even help us with our memory,” she explains.

“There’s a lot of things that music does, and the question I get interested in is why does it help? And one reason might be because it kind of it seems to activate so many different parts of the brain and it also seems to help us connect and process our emotions.”

She explains that music is known as a ‘complex’ stimuli, because it actives a range of responses in our grey matter.

It can activate language centres if there’s words in music, our emotional centres, our attention our memory, our motor function and more.

“Have you ever had the desire to sort of tap your foot or dance when you hear the track? Sometimes it’s actually really hard to stay still when you hear a great song,” Toner laughs.

“And so music activates a lot of the brain at once. And that’s why we think it can be really therapeutic for a range of things, from memory to processing speed to relieving emotional stress. And the cool thing is, is when we listen to music, our brain also produces happy hormones like dopamine and oxytocin. So it’s really has a huge effect on the brain.”

Honestly anything that has the potential to give a *much needed* boost to our happy hormones we’re happy to jump on board with.

The best part about music is that no, you don’t need to listen to classical to get the mental health benefits.

“There’s one study that tried to look at whether being played jazz or classical music made people feel less depressed. And it turned out that it didn’t really matter. You know, whatever the music is, it made people feel better…You know, any music can achieve this and it’s different for everyone,” says Toner.

She tells a story of a heavy metal musician she interviewed who found that metal put him in a meditative state. Who doesn’t love a bit of hardcore when you’re trying to relax?

The point is that the sky is the limit, so listen to your body and how you’re feeling to figure out what preferences work best for you.

One thing to avoid (if it makes you feel bad) is listening to music that’s vastly different from the mood you’re in.

“Listening to anything that’s wildly incongruent with how you’re feeling at any given time might feel a little irritating or maybe even depressing,” she says.

For example, upbeat tunes are going to feel super jarring and inauthentic when you’re sad or heartsick, so feel free to listen to copious amounts of Taylor Swift when going through something– it will be much more on theme.

*opens Spotify*