Many people listen to the theme song from Rocky, “Gonna Fly Now,” to make the most of a workout. Research has shown that music can help us work out longer with less pain. Others use it for some general, get-up-and-go motivation.
What do you listen to when you’ve gotten-up-and-going but find yourself under too much pressure and need some stress relief? Maybe you play a popular, relaxing song or your favorite piece of classical music.
Why do we do use music like this? How does it work? And is there a way to optimize the impact for stress relief?
It’s been said that music is the soundtrack of our lives. When you hear a song you heard when you were younger, it can bring back a tidal wave of memories and related emotions. These emotions can be good and relaxing, but they can also be upsetting and stressful.
A Soundtrack for Dogs?
The connection between music and an earlier emotion is probably the result of what psychologists call classical conditioning. You may remember from Psychology 101 that Pavlov, a Russian scientist, rang a bell before presenting meat to dogs. As one would expect, the dogs salivated to the meat, but after a while, the dogs would salivate to the bell alone. An association or connection between the bell and the meat was forged.
This discovery has led to our understanding of how people develop phobias after getting scared in situations that they later come to fear. In addition, it has led to treatments for a wide range of phobias and other disorders. It also explains why music we have heard at one time in our lives can bring back powerful emotions.
Are Background Sounds Helpful in Relaxation Training?
Perhaps you have learned some skills for relaxation in yoga, Lamaze or other classes or from video or audio recordings. Maybe you learned to deepen and slow your breathing, tense and release your muscles or visualize peaceful scenes. Many relaxation recordings have instrumental music or sounds of nature to help you relax while you learn the techniques.
When I was studying to become a psychologist, the use of such background music and sounds on relaxation recordings was suspect because the relaxation techniques had been developed and then taught without backgrounds. In fact, research with recordings had mixed results until better ones were made in sound studios, but the use of backgrounds was still controversial.
The value of such backgrounds seemed self-evident to me, but to put the concerns of some psychologists to rest, I conducted a study comparing responses to relaxation instructions with and without backgrounds. The results clearly supported the use of background music and sounds of nature.
Not All Relaxing Music is Relaxing
In my psychology practice, I used a number of earlier relaxation programs with patients and found that music backgrounds were usually very helpful, but for some patients the music would bring back upsetting memories. To avoid this soundtrack stress and introduce some new methods for stress relief, I recorded relaxation instructions during therapy sessions and suggested patients play their favorite, most relaxing music as backgrounds when practicing at home.
I also bought a natural sound generator for my office. The device allowed me to play the sounds of rain, thunder, crickets, a brook, the ocean and the wind alone or in combination with other sounds such as thunder, a buoy and the cries of seagulls or loons. There is probably nothing more soothing than sounds recorded from God’s creation. I invited patients to choose their favorite nature sounds and played them while I recorded the relaxation instructions for them.
One patient picked a combination of wind and coyotes. Coyotes? I got the creeps from the howls of the coyotes but the patient was from the mid-west and explained that he listened to the wind and the coyotes when he was tucked safely in bed at night growing up on the plains!
Why are the Sounds of the Seashore So Popular?
Fortunately, I found that the most popular nature sounds were a combination of ocean waves with the call of seagulls. Years later I was asked why that combination was the most popular. Surprisingly, I had never thought about it, so I felt a bit foolish, because you don’t need to be a psychologist to realize that most people sunbath and relax at the beach where they hear those sounds.
The only patient who didn’t like that combination had been bitten by a seagull as a child! Here was another example of soundtrack stress. I told him that I was sorry that the soundtrack upset him and I gave him a voice-only version.
After eight years of getting feedback from patients and incorporating their suggestions into my instructions, I commissioned a new guitar piece from a composer. I told him that I did not want anyone to be able to recognize the melody or find that it reminded them of a song they had heard.
I voiced the program in a studio and then sound processed the recordings on my desktop PC, carefully blending in the guitar music and seashore sounds. One patient told me that it was very relaxing but wondered how I could record it without breathing. I explained that I had spent hours taking out any distracting sounds, including my breathing.
Soundtrack Stress Relief is Born
The program became an award-winning, seven-part audio relaxation program. One of the first patients to use it was a medical student. He wanted to know if I had a recording of just the background nature sounds and guitar music.
When I asked him why, he explained that he had practiced all seven parts and found the program really helped with his stress, but he couldn’t listen to it while studying. He used the rapid relaxation techniques he’d learned from the program but he still found himself anxious while studying certain subjects. When he had tried listening to the program while studying, the instructions were too distracting. He thought the soundtrack would give him another way to relax when his anxiety interfered with his studying.
This was so helpful for the student that I began offering the soundtrack to other patients who had used the program. For example, I recommended that an author with writer’s block play the soundtrack to decrease the likelihood of spending time staring at the computer screen. I also suggested that a man with obsessive thoughts listen to the familiar background sounds and music when he was doing household tasks to avoid getting into upsetting repetitive thinking.
The soundtracks saved time because it allowed these patients to relax while doing what they wanted to do. They did not have to listen to one of the parts of the program to get some of the benefits.
Beware: Soundtrack Stress Relief can be Too Relaxing!
I should mention that early on, I got the same request as I got from the medical student from a patient who was anticipating a lot of anxiety in a couple of weeks because he had to drive into New York City. He knew from the introduction to my program that it was dangerous to drive while listening to the program because it might be too distracting or it might put him to sleep. He used the soundtrack I gave him and was very pleased with the results.
Unfortunately, a later patient found even just the soundtrack made him too sleepy to drive, so I no longer recommend its use while driving. Just like medications that offer powerful relief from symptoms but can be misused or have unwanted side effects, the power of soundtrack stress relief to relax must be used carefully and responsibly.
Sex and Stress Relief
Sometimes my patients have problems finding time to listen to the stress relief program as often as needed for it to be of help. Many times I suggest that they ask their spouse to practice with them. One of these patients admitted sheepishly the next session that the two of them were so relaxed that they made love for the first time in months!
Another patient who had struggled for years with erectile dysfunction used the program and had made steady progress in resuming intimacy. When he found himself having difficulties again, he scheduled a “booster session.” I used hypnosis to help him resume his progress but I also suggested the use of the soundtrack during lovemaking. He has not called back for another appointment and I am hoping he is doing so well that he does not need to see me anymore.
Public Speaking and Golf
For people with a fear of public speaking, the soundtracks are also a great way to extend periods of mental rehearsal before giving a speech. For those wanting to use imagery to improve their golf game or performance in other sports, the soundtracks give them more time to envision mastery and success during a “practice” session.
I hope this information will help you relieve your stress in new and effective ways.
Copyright © 2018 by Ronald G. Nathan, Ph.D.