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Using Music For Emotional Wellness

Music's therapeutic and mood-boosting benefits have a positive effect on mental health

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The pandemic is no doubt taking a toll on mental health – particularly on our children. Even before the pandemic, the World Health Organization reported that depression is a leading source of disability outstripping cancer and heart disease. The uncertainty of the pandemic only heightened this, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting a 24% increase in mental-health related visits for kids 5-11 years, and 31% for kids 7-11 years old in the year from April 2020.

It is a groundless time, with so much uncertainty for everyone. Whether it’s the days dragging on at home in front of a computer as the only source of connection to friends, or the fear of losing a loved one from Covid-19, we are experiencing more difficult feelings like loneliness, anxiety, and stress. Even the reopening of schools in this new normal will bring nervous fear to some children and parents alike.

Dr. Lisa Damour (the expert adolescent psychologist and best-selling author, monthly New York Times columnist and mother of two) explains how school closures, canceled school plays, concerts, sports matches and activities cause deep disappointment in children, because In the scope of an adolescent’s life these are major losses. This is bigger for them than it is for us because we’re measuring it against our lifetime and experience.”

But this does offer a significant learning opportunity for social and emotional learning (SEL). Imagine the power of teaching AND modeling a healthy way to deal with emotions, both inside the classroom and at home. Indeed all five competencies of self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision making, self-management, and relationship skills could be affected by such growth.

Dr. Damour advises parents to let children feel their emotions and “support, expect and normalize” whatever emotions are coming up for them. 

In my work with schools for the My Mama Says Inside Me Lives A Village, we talk about a three-step process: 

  1. Identify what emotions you are feeling (tip here is to think about all the emotions that are coming up for you, not just the loudest most obvious one!)
  2. Acknowledge the emotions and allow them to be there.
  3. Listen to the message it is delivering – since there are often many emotions trying to deliver their message at the same time it helps to give them some space so you can properly hear them. Once the message has been delivered, the emotion tends to quiet down.

The key learnings are that emotions live inside us all the time, and they don’t control us nor do we control them, and they all have one job – to deliver a message to you. Even the most difficult of emotions are helping us by signposting important motivators, or support structures. But it is difficult to hear those messages because there are always multiple emotions delivering their message at the same time. Like five people yelling something at you at the same time, it is difficult to decipher anything! So creating SPACE becomes vital to hearing.

There are many ways to create space including through breathwork, meditation, exercise, and conversations, but my personal favorite is through music.

I will admit to having worked through major heartbreak – hearing my frustrations, anger, resentment, rage, fear, sadness, self-pity, and disappointment – all through my speakers at full boar, playing a curated playlist of my favorite hit songs.

There is also a plethora of research on the therapeutic and mood-boosting benefits of music. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, music can play an integral role in lifting our spirits, helping us manage stress, while also connecting us with others.

So how can you use music to help? 

The good news is that all kids love music! It can motivate, set the mood, excite them, and connect them – because music makes you feel

Here are some simple musical activities that parents and teachers can incorporate:

Motivating theme song

Have your kids (or students) pick a motivating theme song for themselves and ask them to share why they picked it. This combines music, critical reflection and conversation to create space. You can take this further and encourage them to record their own version, or simply play it as they get started with their day. 

Music (or sounds) as prompts

Because music makes us feel, it can instantly take us back to a memory. We can also use sound to build healthy habits and rituals. For example, using a gentle bell or a reflective song to draw people into a silent reflective minute. After a while, just sounding the bell or playing the song alone will cause students to find stillness and reflect without further instruction. 

Create a conscious playlist

Creating a conscious playlist is both impactful and easy to do, simply:

  • Ask your kids to think about how they are feeling – there is no limit but they should aim for at least 5 or more emotions – and have them write those down.
  • Pick a song to match each of these emotions. If kids need help, just take a look at the mood playlists on music streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, Apple and Amazon Music, or for music teachers, we offer emotions as a musical category in WURRLYedu.
  • Point out to your students that they are slowly building a soundtrack to match all of their regularly felt emotions, and they can tune into each one as you sit with it and listen.
  • Encourage your kids to explore the transitions between each emotional state – how does it feel to listen to one song when you no longer feel that emotion inside you?

Encourage kids to get up and move

Combine movement with creativity and self-expression for space. Here’s how:

  • Play a song with a good beat.
  • Encourage kids to improvise or learn a choreographed dance, or ask them to bounce a basketball to the beat or offbeat. If working with more than one child, you can even encourage collaboration, by working together to create a dance or create a beat with the music. 
  • Try recording it so that you can reflect back on the experience, asking what worked and what didn’t and why? Were there any emotions reflected in the dance or the beat? 

Use music to connect

It can be as simple as asking kids to share music tastes, or writing a song and jamming out together, either way, music connects people. And in times like a pandemic, where connection becomes vital, it seems obvious to keep music in schools. In schools, WURRLYedu, FlipGrid and Soundtrap can be great solutions, with a fun and engaging user experience and content. At home, using Spotify, YouTube, and Garageband can also work for discovery, creation and collaboration. 

Music is an important part of the human experience. It’s an easy way to create space for us to hear the messages of the more difficult emotions. It can also make us feel something new and boost our mood, since music reflects its own emotions. 

And during the COVID-19 pandemic, the power of music is stronger than ever, especially when it’s harnessed with the conscious acknowledgment of its power. I remain hopeful that it is part of the solution for mental health.

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