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Coping Through Music with Dr. Julianna Troy

Julianna Troy playing bass guitarIt is a time of unprecedented uncertainty, loss, and fear due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when we would normally seek solace by connecting with others and supporting each other, those needed in-person connections have been cut short as we attempt to protect ourselves and others as best we can through social distancing. Virtual connection has been a lifeline for many, but we are all still left with feelings of tremendous anxiety, grief, sadness, and dread about current events and an unknown future. At times these feelings can be all consuming and overwhelming, and at other times our minds and bodies take a protective stance against the flood of these feelings, leading us to feel disconnected and numb. Moving between such states is a completely normal response to coping with trauma, even more so in the face of an unprecedented collective trauma like the one we are experiencing now.

Like many others, I have attempted to cope with this rollercoaster of emotions by taking things one day at a time (although these days, it is entirely too easy to lose track of what day it is!). During my working hours I talk to patients and colleagues remotely from my home, trying to maintain some semblance of my former schedule. This grounds me. The focus is on connection and support, with an added new layer of acknowledging the grim changes in reality surrounding us all. Hours away from work are disconcertingly spent in the same physical spaces for the most part but also involve seeking connection and meaning, and trying to feel centered when emotions are either running high or feel locked away. In addition to spending time with my family, spending time outside, exercising, cooking, and playing music (in my case bass guitar) has become my go-to method for emotion regulation these days. Music has always been a priority, but playing feels essential now.

CelloPlaying an instrument and making music (or listening to the music of others and dancing) is all at once soothing, distracting, and releasing. It lets you express yourself in a way that can be more powerful than words, or express yourself deeply when words fail you. It uniquely involves integration of multiple sensory (auditory, tactile, and visual) and motor functions and quite literally marries motion with emotion. From a neurobiological perspective, engaging with music increases blood flow to the brain, including areas linked to emotion, pleasure, arousal, and reward. It can stimulate the release of neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin) that can promote improved mood, relaxation, feelings of connection, and well-being. Musical training can improve neural flexibility and improve memory. Given the many therapeutic benefits of music, and given that many of us have suddenly found ourselves in the paradoxical position of grappling with so much mentally while staying home with large amounts of unstructured time, there is no time like the present to more fully engage with music and see what it has to offer you. If you currently play an instrument, play more, and branch out into new styles you wouldn’t previously have attempted. If you used to play an instrument but have taken a hiatus, now is the time to get back into it. For those who have always wanted to learn to play an instrument, or sing or dance, or listen to the music of others intentionally and intensely, now is your chance to dive deep. Your brain, and your heart, will thank you!

Julianna Troy, MD, MPH, FAPA

Keys of a Piano Sheet Music