Home Adjunct therapies Brainwaves: music, addiction, trauma

Brainwaves: music, addiction, trauma

How can music actively assist in the treatment of addiction and trauma? John Levine links music to brainwaves, while a therapist reports how this helped his patients to recover.

How can music actively assist in the treatment of addiction and trauma? You might already have witnessed how a particular piece of music can be used to sensitively remind a client of particular memories – when introduced skillfully into the therapeutic process, music can allow that client to have the ability to experience a degree of catharsis round that memory.

Or you might have played soothing classical or other music in the background during sessions, to create an atmosphere of calm, conducive to allowing the client to feel safe and supported.

But the placing of specific music usually requires you to know a certain amount about the client and their circumstances. While calming music can create a feeling of safety, it can also be a distraction to the great well of emotions in turmoil beneath the surface, which are often the very thing we want to support the client in being able to safely access and heal.

Many years ago, my father was found to be suffering from a myriad of physical illnesses, all of which the medical experts confirmed were related to and/or caused by stress and anxiety. He was not an addict per se but he was addicted to anxiety and tension, and this eventually caused him to suffer from diverticulitis, diabetes, heart disease and a stroke, eventually passing away when he was 58 years old.

When I saw my father suffering in this way, I was determined to learn as much as I could about how the brain could keep you relaxed and stress free. This journey took me to learn meditation, as I read that it could help to lessen and/or manage negative thoughts. During the introduction in the first lesson, we were shown how brainwaves slow down as we get into a deeper state. Feeling lifted, as if a heavy load had been taken from my shoulders, was the effect of my first meditation lesson. I experienced a significant, positive change in my mental and emotional state. I wanted to share this with my father, who was by now in his last months of life, in intensive care.

The frustration of my father not understanding, nor being receptive to what I had to share with him about the benefits of meditation, and the fact that this information came 20 years too late to help him, drove me to question meditation itself. There must be a way, I thought, to allow a person to experience the benefits of meditation without that person having to learn or understand meditation, nor perform any particular exercise. Even if it was too late to help my father, I was driven to continue this enquiry in the belief and hope that I could be able to help prevent others from befalling a similar fate.

Having a degree in classical music composition, music was my medium, so I decided to create a composition which would induce the brainwaves to slow down from the beta stressed state to the calmer alpha state, and then even below, to theta and delta. My aim was to create a special type of music which would induce the meditation effect of slowing the brainwaves down, in the belief that similar benefits would then be forthcoming for the listener.

My first experiment, Silence of Peace, was tested on a patient using an EEG machine. It was shown that the brainwaves of that patient moved to the alpha state within minutes.

Subsequently, a test was conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge. In a class of disruptive teenager boys, which the teacher called “my class from hell”, the results of playing Silence of Peace during lessons were a drop of 87% in talking and a 108% increase in academic results. And so began the influx of evidence that the music slowed down the brainwaves to the calmer alpha-state, allowing listeners to experience a variety of benefits.

In an article published in Psychology Today (16 April 2010) entitled Mindfulness, meditation and addiction, Dr Ronald Alexander states that “Often we cause ourselves suffering when we ache for something that lies out of our grasp or cling in vain to something that has already passed away. Sometimes, the wanting mind involves tightly holding on to something negative: an unwholesome belief about how things ought to be or should have been, or an unwholesome emotion such as anger, sadness, or jealousy”. It is exactly these states of mind that alphamusic is being found to alleviate.

A Cambridge-based drug addict in recovery noticed that alphamusic greatly assisted in dissipating the fears that usually would drive her to relapse. Amanda Gordon, a past president of the Australian Psychological Society, noticed that while using alphamusic during therapy sessions her clients reported feeling more relaxed and “in the moment”. She stated that “clients remained focused and calmer, even when talking of quite traumatic events”, and while not being re-traumatised.

In 2012, I met Richard Scanlan, a senior specialist therapist who had been using alphamusic to great effect with his clients, in particular when used in conjunction with EMDR, eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing. Afterwards, he decided to utilise alphamusic in a group therapy setting, to see what further effect it might have in complement to his treatment of addiction and trauma clients.

The therapist’s case history.

Below, Richard Scanlan describes the effects of alphamusic on patients in a trauma group…

“For five years, I had facilitated a trauma group at Castle Craig Hospital. The group addresses the complex issues of treating traumatic stress and addiction simultaneously in a 12-step rehab. Our members included combat veterans, survivors of sexual assault and physical violence.

“The aim of the group was to learn skills to cope with the ‘here and now’ and problems associated with traumatic experience. Individual members receive cognitive behavioural therapy and EMDR outside the group setting. The group is seen as a sanctuary or a safe place to tolerate the effects of the past, not revisit them. Soon after setting up the group I discovered alphamusic. I had previously used ambient music to create a calm atmosphere at appropriate stages of the group as there is a strong psycho-education component in learning about the body’s reaction to stress and teaching mindfulness or self soothing strategies. I replaced Brian Eno’s ambient music with an alphamusic recording during one session and found a profound change in the patients’ response. I was intrigued.

“A US soldier described it as ‘the education made more sense… I felt calmer… [and] was able to visualise a more positive future’. Other members reported similar findings.

“I had been working with this patient individually and was aware of his deep complex trauma and diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. He had received EMDR and it was not unheard-of for patients to have such moments of clarity. He stated that the music had a direct influence on him. I continued to use alphamusic and heard this consistently reiterated by other members.

“I tried ambient music with the same group and they reported calmness but not the same profound sense they got from the alphamusic. So this is now integrated into the group work. We need more scientifically validated studies on the music…”