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When Words Fail: The Role of Art and Music Therapy in Depression Recovery

Nothing beats a good movie on a bad day. Or even a sad movie on a bad day. If you can’t cry with Rachel McAdams in The Notebook, who can you cry with?

Humans have been turning to the arts for emotional comfort for centuries. We use it as a way to explore life’s hardest moments and share it with others to encourage understanding and dispel feelings of loneliness.

In the medical world, art and music therapy are considered Complementary and Alternative Medical (CAM) practices to use alongside traditional treatments, like medication or mental health and behavioral counseling.

Still, the science of it is real.

Types of Music Therapy

There are two kinds of music therapy: active and receptive. 

Active music therapy involves making the music yourself. Playing instruments, singing, composition, lyric writing, and even improvised drawing or dancing while listening to music are all forms of it. Active music therapy has been shown to significantly reduced symptoms of depression across studies, especially for those with severe mental and psychiatric disorders. Researchers also found that the best results came from sessions lasting at least one hour in length and recurring up to three times per week.

Receptive music therapy describes simply listening to music for emotional relief (also known as music medicine). It’s less holistic and impactful than music therapy, but still a cathartic way to regulate emotions.

The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM)

In this practice, therapists use classical music as a vessel to help you deeply explore inner workings. Sessions typically start with a conversation between you and the therapist to assess mood, energy levels, and any goals for the session. The therapist then makes a music selection and runs you through a mindfulness exercise to ready the mind for focus and calm.

photo of a smiling woman listening to music on headphonesThen you relax, listen to the music, and share any mental images that appear, whether they’re visual, physical sensations, thoughts, or memories. During this time, therapists serve more as facilitators than guides, asking you to expand on images or dig deeper into certain themes. 

Therapists then transition you out of a deepened state and into a reflective one to discuss any insights gained. You may have new perspectives on certain relationships in your life—including the one you have with yourself—and emotions that formerly felt challenging.

Dopamine’s Lesser Known Friend: Prolactin

Many of us already know about dopamine, the “pleasure” chemical our brains release when laughing at a funny scene or passing by some freshly baked cookies. Listening to music can also release dopamine, no matter if the song is happy or sad. 

Some mental health experts also believe that sad songs can trigger the production of prolactin, a hormone released when dealing with grief. This would explain why some people with depression experience feelings of belonging and peace after listening to sad music.

Sad songs also give us the chance to “practice” trauma before it happens. Listening to a break-up song, for example, allows us to prepare for heartbreak before entering an actual relationship. As a result, we can feel more empowered and capable of overcoming challenges because the break-up never actually came, but we mentally prepared for it anyway.

You Don’t Have to Be Artistic to Benefit

Art therapy isn’t about achieving greatness as an artist. It’s about learning coping skills to move through hard times and regain a sense of self-trust. If the goal was to draw perfect lines or belt a high note without cracking, you would take an art class or voice lesson.

It’s not about replicating the world outside, but rather exploring the world within ourselves. If it feels like you’ve tried everything to treat your depression or move through trauma and nothing’s clicking, art therapy could be the thing that works for you. 

Schedule your first session with one of our counselors today for depression therapy.