The Art of Overcoming PTSD: Building Resiliency Via Music Therapy

By Judith Pinkerton*, LPMT, MT-BC

The art of resiliency is symbolized in the Chinese proverb: "The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists." Even though the bamboo’s tensile strength resembles steel, and its toughness is similar to oak, bamboo is highly elastic and desired in earthquake-prone areas. Focused on full life support, Asians build houses with bamboo, believing it encourages living with consistent, flexible endurance.1When dealing with the strong emotions of trauma and PTSD, there is a certain rigidity (resembling the toughness of oak) that interferes with the art of flexibility, aka emotional fluidity (as desired in bamboo’s elasticity). Practicing emotional fluidity strengthens resilience by allowing appropriate full-strength, healthy expression of the broad continuum of emotion; not becoming intensely stuck or repressing any emotion.

Among the many coping techniques taught, active and receptive music therapy approaches (including psychoeducation) can support the development of emotional fluidity. When practiced regularly it can improve resilience. Coping strategies can be paired within music therapy interventions to facilitate cathartic experiences utilizing:2

Deep breathing to calm physiology.

Progressive muscle relaxation modified to release physical and emotional tension.

Mindfulness training to improve in-the-moment focus.

Mood sequence meditation to create a cathartic experience.

In-person music therapy sessions are always preferred, and the recent escalation of telehealth services have established another ideal access. However, the problem is that only 9,600 music therapists are available to work in the USA, with just 23% focused on mental health.3This access problem has created demand for music-therapy-informed strategies scaled through DIY [do-it-yourself] digitized formats to support emotional fluidity and build resilience with long-term benefit for civilians and veterans challenged with PTSD.

In an effort to respond to this demand, I am one of the creators of digitized music therapy-informed strategies. In my earlier research, I reported that “during my work as a music therapist, I recognized certain mood inflexibilities that manifested as emotion dysregulation in more than 11,000 clients over a period of seven years. This results in their poor ability to cope with unsettled moods including anger, anxiety, depression and sadness, thereby disrupting positive mental health.”4 Through a specific music therapy technique that modulates moods, I noted the effects of one mood sequence meditation formulated with mood music representing 11 genres, otherwise known as a Music Medicine Pill™,5 for 603 clients (many of whom experienced trauma or PTSD). Ninety-four percent reported improvements in a survey of 12 habits related to emotional intelligence, with 91% yielding positive mood changes.6

The following two examples provide testimonials towards the healing benefits of music therapy:

  1. Client Madison considers his customized Music Medicine Pill essential to his addiction treatment for PTSD.7 Prior to treatment, he only listened to metal music to justify his feelings of rage after witnessing his best friend’s suicide. “Music therapy finally helped me deal with the emotional triggers of that trauma breaking me down daily. I opened up to different kinds of music, beyond metal, to feel different emotions,” shares Madison. “It helped me get in tune with feeling sad and happy, and not just rage, with key ways to feel it, accept it, and not deny it or push it down or get violent towards myself. Because of music therapy I can think about Chandler now with the emotional trigger gone, no longer sparking the rage about half my world being ripped away from me. Three years later, I still use a variety of music for sobriety and healing my PTSD.”

  2. A female Army veteran experienced PTSD from childhood trauma and active shooter incidents, reporting feelings of frustration, depression, anxiety, anger, and stress which accentuated extreme unbalance and led to extreme social phobias. During her initial assessment, the veteran reported taking propranolol, an anti-anxiety medication. After completing the listening regimen required for her customized mood sequence meditation, she reported that her doctors were pleased with her progress and discontinued her anxiety medication. Another astonishing effect: her social phobias significantly reduced after the first week, with her attendance at a job fair speaking with possible employers without hesitation and even agreed to be interviewed on television – all because music therapy instilled fun, reduced getting sweaty or hot with no fear of people touching her. She reported having greater ability to “put things into perspective.”8

Music therapy can help build resiliency and diminish PTSD with specific interventions that process past memories, eliminate flashback and nightmares, regain motivation and optimism, and transform anxiety into confidence. It is a valid option to consider including in PTSD coping treatment strategies.

For more information about the unique music therapy mood sequence meditation, visit THEMusic4Life.com and www.PowerUpYour.Life/ResilienceBuilding.

*Judith Pinkerton is a clinician and internship director, author, TEDx speaker, and recording artist. She is the first to receive state-issued music therapy licenses in the US. She developed the Music4Life® wellness system of Music Medicine training programs and products that teach and support this medical protocol through telemedicine, continuing education ecourses, podcast subscriptions, and digital product downloads benefiting anyone concerned about mental health. (visit judithpinkerton.com)

REFERENCES:

1. “How is bamboo redefining architecture in recent times?” Rethinking the Future. 2022. From https://www.re-thinkingthefuture.com/article/how-is-bamboo-redefining-architecture-in-recent-times/

2. Dougherty, V. et al. “Music therapy with military service members and veterans.” American Music Therapy Association. 2021. From https://www.musictherapy.org/assets/1/7/FactSheet_Music_Therapy_with_Military_Service_Members_and_Veterans_2021.pdf

3. Simpson J. & Dalsimer, B. “Email confirmation of current certified music therapists with workforce survey results.” American Music Therapy Association and Certification Board for Music Therapists. 2022. From https://www.musictherapy.org/assets/1/7/2019WorkforceAnalysis.pdf

4. Pinkerton, J. Music on our minds. 2021. From https://www.judithpinkerton.com/post/music-on-our-minds

5. “Music medicine with military.” Music 4 Life, Inc. 2021. From https://themusic4life.com/music-medicine-with-military/

6. Pinkerton, J. “Brace for impact: A case for emotional fluidity.” Music 4 Life, Inc. 2019. ISBN 978-0-9745147-7-2

7. Bliss, M. Music 4 PTSD. 2022. From https://themusic4life.com/testimonials

8. Wellman, R., & Pinkerton, J. The development of a music therapy protocol: A Music 4 Life® case report of a veteran with PTSD.Music and Medicine Journal. 2015; VII(3): 24-39. doi.org/10.47513/mmd.v7i3.408

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