Traumatic experiences live in the body and activate the fight/flight or freeze response even when the danger is no longer there. Those with unresolved trauma may experience the feeling of being in danger physiologically with rapid heart rate, heightened cortisol (stress) levels, and the experience of ‘re-living’ or replaying the traumatic experience in one’s mind. Someone also may be completely unaware that they have trauma living in their body, until something happens that triggers the traumatic experience.
Music Therapy Helps Heal Trauma Locked in the Body
Music therapy can be used to help bring the body into a state of relaxation, activating the parasympathetic nervous system (this helps with resting and digesting), and deactivating the sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, or freeze). Live music along with spoken guided relaxation gives the body a chance to enter into a state of relaxation; thus, giving the body a break from being in constant stress. Music therapy can also be helpful in expressing old, trapped emotion and help the body heal physically from trauma.
At Renown Children’s Hospital, a young boy was hit by a car while riding his bike and was experiencing the after-effects of trauma, not only in his physical body as he healed from multiple surgeries to reconstruct his leg, but also psychologically, as he struggled with picturing the incident every time he closed his eyes. Because of the severity of his accident, he was in the hospital for a few weeks, and we were able to have multiple music therapy sessions as he prepared to go home. Initially he asked for music to help him feel calm. I led him through a guided imagery experience, playing gentle music on the guitar, while verbally guiding him through the visual imagery of being on a beach (a place he named as being relaxing) and feeling the breeze on his skin and having someone he loves come and sit next to him. Afterwards, he had a smile on his face and looked peaceful. He shared that he imagined his mother came and sat with him on the beach and told me how much he appreciated her support.
In future sessions, we integrated music therapy into his physical therapy treatments. I played different chords to facilitate the movements directed by the physical therapist. The addition of the music tailored to the speed and movements he was attempting, made him much more tolerant of the movements and much more focused and motivated then when he had physical therapy without music therapy. In one of our later experiences, we played the drums and he expressed the anger he felt for what had happened to him. Even though he never wanted any harm to come to the person who ran over him, he still felt anger that needed to be released. The drums provided him with a healthy way of releasing that anger.
Healing Childhood Trauma at NNAMHS
Music therapy can also help resolve trauma that happened long before the music therapy session. In a music therapy group at NNAMHS, we re-wrote the song “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty, and some chose to write about physically abusive relationships they had been in in the past. These were traumatic experiences, but the songwriting gave them an opportunity to share their experience with peers, as well as take a more empowered perspective of being the victor instead of the victim.
Immediately after trauma, or when a trauma response is being reactivated in the body, the body needs a way to return to a state of calm. Guided relaxations, meditations, and visualizations can help the body to de-activate the stress response. No matter how long ago a trauma occurred, songwriting provides a way for people to re-tell their story in a way that is empowering. The way we view our past experiences can influence the way we experience our future, and the more resolved we feel about traumatic experiences in the past, the less likely we are to repeat painful patterns in relationships and in our lives.