In recent years, researchers and addiction specialists have come to recognize the value of music therapy in the treatment of substance problems. This form of treatment is often grouped together with a range of non-medication-based options known as sound therapies, creative arts therapies or holistic therapies. One of the most promising options in this developing field of health and wellness is drum therapy. When it forms part of a larger course of drug or alcohol treatment, drumming can provide a powerful incentive for people in recovery.
Music Therapy Basics
Music can have a positive or negative impact on people with substance problems. Outside of a treatment setting, it sometimes serves as a reinforcement for existing patterns of substance abuse[i]. In fact, many people with drug or alcohol abuse/addiction report an increase in their substance cravings when listening to certain types of music. Factors that help explain this reaction include:
- The association of particular songs with drug or alcohol intake
- The ability of music to evoke or reinforce distressing emotions that make substance use more likely
- Exposure to songs that explicitly reference substance use as an acceptable activity
Despite these realities, people in substance treatment often cite the power of music as a constructive influence and a potential tool for establishing and maintaining their sobriety. Current research supports this point of view, and music therapy has become an important option for supportive treatment in drug and alcohol programs.
Music therapy can take a variety of forms. Common options include:
- Solo performance
- Group performance
- Improvisational performance
In all of these settings, participants can learn how to change their relationship to music and increase their willingness and capacity to take part in other aspects of their treatment. Specific benefits of this form of therapy include such things as[ii]:
- An improved ability to express emotion
- An improved mental outlook
- Increased personal motivation
- An increased ability to move away from damaging thoughts and behaviors
- An improved ability to deal with ongoing withdrawal symptoms or substance cravings
Drum Therapy Basics
Research shows that drum therapy can have a range of positive effects on a person’s emotional and physical well-being. Mental/psychological benefits of drumming include[iii]:
- Reduced levels of depression
- Reduced levels of anxiety and perceived stress
- An improved ability to make social connections and thrive in social settings
One important physical benefit of drumming is a reduction in the body’s levels of chronic inflammation. This form of ongoing, system-wide inflammation is known for its ability to increase risks for long-term damage in major organs such as the brain and heart. In addition, drumming may increase the body’s level of immune system components called T-cells. These cells play a frontline role in the ability to kill off viruses and other harmful microorganisms.
Most of the emotional/psychological and physical pluses of drumming reach their peak within a few weeks of program enrollment. Once therapy comes to an end, they can continue to exert their positive influence for months, or even longer.
How Drumming Heals the Mind, Body and Spirit
Drumming is one of humanity’s oldest forms of musicmaking. Long before the age of written language, agriculture and city-building, communities around the globe got together to beat out rhythms on dried animal skins and other materials. This millennia-old relationship to drumming helps explain its power as a tool for holistic healing. Researchers believe this power comes in two basic forms. For some people, the key benefit comes from taking part in a shared activity and forming a kind of community with other participants[iv]. In other cases, the benefit of drumming comes from an improved ability to access emotional states in a non-verbal manner.
Drum therapy may be especially useful for people who have a history of exposure to severe traumas such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, natural disasters, combat or acts of terror. By improving emotional expression, drumming can help those affected by trauma process their experiences in healthy ways. In some forms of therapy, drummers can also use rhythm and sound to demonstrate their current mental/psychological state.
The Importance of Group Drumming
Much of the proven benefit of drumming comes from participating in a group setting. This makes sense on an inherent level, since communal drumming has evolved along with human civilization. Drum circles are common, both in everyday life and in substance-related music therapy programs. In programs, therapists may lead or conduct the activity of communal sessions. They may also allow participants to form circles on their own and drum without any specific form of direction.
Specific Approaches to Sound Therapy in Substance Treatment
In effective substance treatment programs, music/sound therapy is well-integrated into each person’s larger process of recovery. Participants can choose to join in if they have prior music experience or no experience whatsoever. Licensed counselors or therapists help make sure that the chosen form of activity (e.g., drumming) supports other aspects of treatment. In many cases, assignments are issued to reinforce a goal-setting atmosphere.
Some programs, such as the SoundPath music track at Transformation Treatment Center, offer rewards for completing specific assignments. For example, people who take part in a certain number of communal drumming sessions may receive access to recording equipment or get the chance to write their own songs. Other perks that can help promote ongoing recovery include:
- Music-oriented trips
- The chance to perform in front of an audience
- The chance to develop skills that support longer-term involvement in musicmaking
[i] The Arts in Psychotherapy: The Influence of Music on Emotions and Cravings in Clients in Addiction Treatment – A Study of Two Clinical Samples https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S019745561500043X
[ii] American Music Therapy Association: Music Therapy Interventions in Trauma, Depression & Substance Abuse – Selected References and Key Findings https://www.musictherapy.org/assets/1/7/bib_mentalhealth.pdf
[iii] PLOS One: Effects of Group Drumming Interventions on Anxiety, Depression, Social Resilience and Inflammatory Immune Response Among Mental Health Service Users
[iv] Psychology Today: The Heart Is a Drum Machine – Drumming as Therapy https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/talking-about-trauma/201501/the-heart-is-drum-machine-drumming-therapy