We asked a music therapist how to relieve anxiety caused by social distancing

‘You can use music to access emotions and liberate them.'

‘You can use music to access emotions and liberate them'

Let's take a moment to reflect on the important role that music continues to play during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Not only does music boost the body's immune system by increasing production of the antibody immunoglobulin A and natural killer cells that attack invading viruses.

And not only has it proven to be a rallying force in recent weeks, with musicians streaming performances from their living rooms and balconies to fans around the globe.

A street sign advising to practice social distancing is pictured along a roadway in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

But music is also an effective tool for coping with the adverse effects of social distancing and self-isolation.

"Music, as we all know, is very powerful," says Dany Bouchard, a music therapist at the Montreal General Hospital's adult psychiatric and mental health services department, "because it is a tool that brings you into the moment."

Whether you're listening to music (receptive therapy) or making it (active therapy), you're temporarily relieved of anxious rumination on events of the past or speculation about the future, as Bouchard explains.

"Depression very often is a movement towards the past, and anxiety is a movement towards the future. But you know, here and now very often there's no problem," he notes.

"Like, right now, if people stay at home, there's almost zero chance that they'll catch the virus. But even then, you feel anxious because you say, 'Oh, but what if? What if this lasts three months? I feel isolated.' So it's all this going on in your head, you know, that brings you all those moods and emotions."

In those cases, Bouchard says music will help you reconnect with the moment. "Use music as mindfulness," he advises.

Depending on the individual, this could mean turning to music either to self-soothe or vent.

"You can use music to access emotions and liberate them," he says. "Some people really need to vent so they need to access the emotion that is already there and really express it."

For his patients at the Montreal General Hospital, Bouchard often organizes drum circles as active music therapy.

"Drum circles are really where you can be intense — you can play very loudly and bang on the drum and it's almost impossible to break it [laughs]. The level of intensity you'll get during the drum circle will match how you feel inside, you know — the tension you have — and then a transfer is possible."

Others, whose tendency is to ruminate, may respond better to receptive therapy, or music medicine, as he puts it.

"In fact, everybody is doing music medicine, you know? Everybody's using music to self-soothe, to regulate their own mood. Music has a connection with memory, brings us emotions, all kinds of stuff. It's how you use it now in order to make it a musical prescription."

Bouchard works with patients to create a "personalized audio montage," a technique used in receptive music therapy.

"It's very personalized: you meet the patient and we will go through a big questionnaire — What do you like? What don't you like in music? What types of instruments do you like, what nature sounds? Who don't you like? — And we make them listen to some music and I'm noticing if you like it or don't like it, and after that I make three types of montages: one for relaxation, one for stimulation, and one for helping you sleep."

Alexandra Stréliski | Changing Winds | CBC Music

5 years ago
Duration 3:29
Alexandra Stréliski performs "Changing Winds" at CBC Music.

Depending on your living situation — your neighbours may not appreciate your drum circle, for instance — these are techniques that could help relieve anxiety or feelings of loneliness brought on by social distancing.

But should you avoid sad songs? Bouchard says no.

"I'm a big fan of Radiohead. That's my favorite band," he allows. "And of course, a lot of people find it very depressing music. But it's interesting to read the comments of people who like that music because they say, 'That's why I'm still alive. Because when I'm feeling depressed and stuff, I'm listening to that music and it expresses the way I feel. And it does the job in the sense that it validates how I feel, so I don't feel too bad anymore.' You know what I mean?

"Some pieces by Chopin make me cry every time I hear them for some reason. But you know what? If I need to go there sometimes, I use that as a path to access my own sadness. And then I can fully live my emotions, like I'm supposed to."

Janina Fialkowska | Frédéric Chopin: Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61 | CBC Music

4 years ago
Duration 12:02
Janina Fialkowska performs Chopin's Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat Major, Op. 61, for CBC Music.

Bouchard says using sad songs in this way is not only healthy, but also safe. 

"Music is a safe container in the sense that people feel safe, they know it's not going to last more than three, four or five minutes. So there's a resonance and they start to cry or there's a cathartic moment. And because of the structure, the time frame, the beat and all that, the person can feel supported and safe to express their emotion because there's something else all around that sustains them."