Music and PTSD

by Chelsea Mackinnon

It was a summer day, and I was driving down the 401 on route to my Grandma’s house. I was with a few close friends, and of course, we were listening to music. It was a beautiful sunny day, and we were excited for the weekend ahead. It was an immediate change, when the speakers began to play a distinctive rhythm of the drum set, signalling the next song on the playlist. Even before I had recognized the song, my friend became tense, her jaw locked, and I could hear her breathing getting heavy. Recognizing what was happening, we changed the song, and asked if we should pull off the highway.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, occurs when a person struggles to recover from a traumatic experience. PTSD is different for everyone; some individuals re-live the traumatic event in dreams or while awake, and others experience heightened emotional distress or anxiety. PTSD can lead to avoidance behaviours, reactivity such as exaggerated startled responses, social detachment, and aggressive behaviour. A diagnosis of PTSD is given to any individual who is not recovered from a traumatic experience one month after the event occurred. However, it is possible to experience PTSD symptoms without being officially diagnosed.

It is fascinating to discuss music and its relationship to PTSD. Music can both exacerbate symptoms of PTSD, as was happening with my friend in the car, and it can be used as a tool to decrease the symptoms of PTSD, ultimately facilitating recovery. Music is intimately linked to emotions, and has the capacity to bring vivid memories, and their associated positive or negative feelings, to consciousness.

The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for storing our deepest, most primal and most emotional memories. It also stores any musical associations with these powerful memories. Hearing the song associated with her trauma, my friend was immediately transported back an entire decade. Her body began to show symptoms of the fight-or-flight response. Her brain signaled to her body to release cortisol, which started a cascade of events in her body systems. She experienced these physical symptoms all because her amygdala conjured up the memory associated with hearing that distinctive drum rhythm.

Using the same brain mechanism, music can be used to re-direct an individuals’ consciousness to different, less traumatic memories. For example, individuals with PTSD may use music in a purposeful way to distract them from their trauma in the presence of other triggers. Tapping in to an individual’s positive memories that have musical associations can be a powerful way to re-focus attention, and prevent the physical symptoms associated with re-living a trauma.

Finally, engaging in music with a group, through formal music therapy sessions or otherwise, can be a powerful and positive experience for individuals with PTSD or trauma. Music can act as a vessel to displace or express feelings, which can be an important part of recovery. Group musicking has also been shown to increase group cohesiveness. For individuals who experience PTSD symptoms such as social withdrawal, doing music in a group can be a stepping stone in the process of re-integrating social experiences into daily life.

Chelsea Mackinnon, BHSc, MA, is Room 217’s Education and Research Manager.  She also teaches two interdisciplinary undergraduate courses at McMaster University, and is the founder of the Hamilton Intergenerational Music Program.