Safe & Sound: Music & your Mental Health

IMPORTANT: This blog is not a substitute for therapy, but provides evidenced-based education for the purposes of self-help, or to compliment the therapeutic process. ​ ​This blog is non-monetized.

By: Christina Crowe, RP, Clinical Supervisor

Many of us intuitively know some of the things that lift us up, especially out of particularly stressful or difficult times.  

But do you know why that strategy actually works as well as it does? Turns out, it isn’t just you, and it isn’t really by chance.  When we know why something works, it makes it easier to apply that strategy intentionally. And now are the times when we need some intentional ways to manage our stress.  

​I have found a lot of success teaching my clients about nervous system regulation with   ‘Polyvagal Theory’.  I’ll explain a few of the basics in this article and let you in on one of my intentional stress management strategies. 

The Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, describes the functioning of the (at least!) 200-million-year-old nervous system responses we humans have inside our bodies today, as well as its more recently evolved adaptions. 

You can think of it very much as your inner caveman, cavewoman, caveperson. 

Emotional regulation training Caledon Bolton

THE BASICS

​From an evolutionary perspective, our nervous system is comprised of some old sections (the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems), and some newer sections (our social engagement system).  

Our tenth cranial nerve, the ‘vagus’ in Latin, wanders from inside your brain, runs down your spinal cord, and innervates every organ in our body, down to your very smart gut (the biology behind your ‘gut feeling’).

Your vagal nerve mediates eye movement, facial expressions, tone of voice, heart rate and heart rate variability, breathing, and the function of your spleen, liver, kidneys and intestines. 

Our parasympathetic response (part of the old system) comes directly from our vagus nerve. It’s responsible for the relaxation response: functions like slowing our heart rate, instructions to release certain proteins and enzymes to calm you down. You are better able to concentrate, self-regulate and connect with others when you are in this more calm and safe state.

When you practice deep, diaphramic breathing, you are intentionally signalling your parasympathetic nervous system. 

​If our inner caveperson senses danger, our ANS signal’s our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to kick into high gear – which we experience as that whoosh of sudden feeling – a primitive response we commonly know as fight or flight.

Image of two tigers fighting in a river

THEN  WHAT HAPPENS ..?

​If the ‘threat’ your brain perceives is chronic or severe enough, our response may devolve even further to ‘immobilization’, or freeze (think deer in headlights).

When people experience despair, hopelessness – this is a continued activation of our dorsal vagal state – staying in immobilization, or freeze

None of these fight, flight or freeze responses necessarily make sense to you in the moment, which can be really distressing (and potentially create toilet paper shortages during pandemics). It all occurs unconsciously by ‘neuroception’, the body’s ability to perceive threat outside of our awareness (think of a lighthouse on the coast, always flashing the light, so danger will be lit up).

​The more recently evolved part of our nervous system is referred to in Polyvagal Theory as our Social Engagement System (SES).  

Can you think back to the last time you felt carefree?

​This is the part of our nervous system that is turned on by signals of safety.  Dr. Porges and others describe it as putting the brakes on defensive strategies, allowing our sympathetic nervous system to take it easy and ease off on all of that activating energy that has us geared up to fight the sabre-toothed tiger or run like heck.

 WHAT ARE YOUR SIGNAL’S OF SAFETY? 

Polyvagal safe and social science-Dig A Little Deeper Therapy

As humans, we look to interpret cues from our environment and the people in our life. Things like vocal prosody (intonation, tone, stress, and rhythm), eye contact and facial gestures are the important things humans intuitively use to gauge safety, every day, all day long.  

​Every parent knows that critical moment when the kids are ‘playing’ – a friendly pillow fight perhaps – and it’s lovely, until it’s not. In a split second, it turns into a fight and we know exactly the moment it happened. Parents ‘know’ because of their own neuroception. 

When our nervous system senses safety, it allows us to participate genuinely with others and be open and willing to accept new ideas.

To connect.

To play.

Polyvagal nerds refer to this state as our ‘safe and social’ state. 

When I keep reminding you to regulate by intentionally lowering your heart rate, I am trying to help you learn a way to signal your parasympathetic system to ignite. To turn on the vagal brakes so our social engagement system can come out to play. 

YOU CAN GET BACK IN CONTROL.

It’s a great exercise to work out what the things are in your life that take you from triggered like nobody’s business, to ‘safe and social.’ Who can you call? Who makes you feel better, no matter what? Do you love to make art? To cook? To go for a run? To listen to music? 

Music has always been a safe haven for me, and it’s no wonder I’m married to a musician.  I can be in THE worst mood, stressed and irritable like the best of us. I noticed there are some songs that always, without fail, lift my mood.  

Actually, more than ‘some’. 

I MADE YOU A MIXTAPE!

Image of a cassette tape with the words CCs Mixtape on the label

(Or, a ‘playlist’ as we call it now).  

​This is a very lovingly curated playlist, very eclectic (don’t judge!), just for you.

Everyone will have their own version of a favourite tunes playlist.  My favourite songs have always been a mix of both songs that were ‘happy’ and also sometimes beautifully sad.

But these songs are very deliberately songs that move me from my sympathetic and dorsal vagal state (fightin’ mad or sad), up to my ventral vagal state (safe and sound indeed). Literally, these songs physically make me want to move (usually to dance very awkwardly).

​The effect is pretty much immediate. 

Every now and then, I will ‘assign’ a song to a client … perhaps there is a message inside, or it’s no specific message, but a song that I suspect will help their nervous system apply their vagal brakes. To move them from one state to another. 

Here is the link to CC’s Vagal Brakes Playlist on Apple Music.  

​These tunes apply my vagal brakes every time. I hope it might inspire you to make one too if music is your thing.  

Make your own, share your links in the comments, and share with your loved ones. 

Stay sanitized.  Peace out. ​


UPDATE:

There are times when we have been avoiding feeling for so long, that it becomes an automatic response to very quickly push the feelings down when they come up. And as many other involuntary human functions – we need to be in a safe place in order for them to occur (kinda like pooping).

So when you are in a safe place, and you have a plan for lifting your sprits afterward, you can also use music to help you FEEL. This is The Feels Playlist.

​Feel free to create your own and share your links in our comments below. 


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Picture of ​Christina Crowe, H.BSc. MACP, RP, (S-Cert) OAMHP (she, her)

​Christina Crowe, H.BSc. MACP, RP, (S-Cert) OAMHP (she, her)

Registered Psychotherapist, Validated Clinical Supervisor, ADHD Therapist & Coach Podcast Host The Christina Crowe Podcast Christina is a Canadian Registered Psychotherapist, a member of CADDRA's Advocacy Committee and relentless mental health advocate. Christina believes great mental health information should be available to everyone, loves creating content that makes invisible things VISIBLE and finding new ways to bring healing experiences to as many people as possible.

8 thoughts on “Safe & Sound: Music & your Mental Health”

  1. Great Blog! I never knew there was so much behind peaceful music and how it makes you feel safe and affects your mental health. I would love to learn more about this if you could share how different music had different effects on your mental health and subconscious!

    Reply
    • Thanks Hannah! It’s less about the type of music (in this context) and more about what the music means to you – where it takes you. That’s something that can change over time, and over life experiences too. And about how to intentionally use music as a tool, to *lift* you, when you need that extra push. 🙂

      Reply
  2. I couldn’t agree more with the power music has on my emotions. I wasn’t able to find the playlist on spotify unfortunately. Is the title different than posted?

    Reply
    • Hi Joanne, thanks so much for your feedback! 🙂

      You should just be able to click on the link in the article … I just tried and it worked? Let me know if you continue to have trouble, maybe try from a different browser.

      Reply

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