Music Speaks When Words Don’t: Using Music in Substance Abuse Therapy

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The therapeutic value of music in substance abuse therapy and other conditions is well documented. Engagement with music, whether on an active or passive level, has proven effective in the treatment and management of a variety of adverse conditions, from anxiety and depression to chronic pain and more.  Music is part of human history, culture, education, religion and ritual.  It is a human phenomenon with the potential to activate multiple areas of the brain simultaneously and improve many domains of functioning, such as physical, cognitive, and emotional. Similar to using substances, music enhances the pleasure centers of the brain, increasing dopamine levels and releasing endorphins.  These emotional and physiological responses have a direct correlation to individuals struggling with substance use disorder more readily embracing substance abuse therapy and treatment, support and community.

Accentuate the Positive: Blending Music and Positive Reinforcement in Substance Abuse Therapy

In addition to the integration of music in structure and implementation of our treatment, Recovery Unplugged distinguishes ourselves from other treatment centers by focusing on recovery triggers as opposed to relapse triggers. Instead of only teaching clients to avoid things that could possibly put them in harm’s way, we want to encourage our clients to seek activities and situations that enhance their pleasure and willingness towards the recovery process. These protective factors can help a client stay aligned with their true goals of getting sober and addressing corresponding mental health issues. The anchoring of recovery triggers through music may increase the likelihood that progress made during treatment is reinforced and sustained as music can be easily integrated into daily routines after completing treatment and reentering everyday life.

Specific Applications of Music in Substance Abuse Therapy Programs

Recovery Unplugged facilitates live-music groups to help clients expand and enhance their comfort zones via multilateral participation. By clapping, dancing, singing along, or even something as simple as tapping their toe to the beat, clients get involved in the group as much as the artists who are performing.  When we dance, our brains often release endorphins, neurotransmitters that create a feeling of comfort, relaxation, fun and power. Music and dance activate the sensory and motor circuits of our brains, as well as the pleasure centers.  When we move in tune with the rhythm, the positive effects of music are amplified. By synchronizing our movements with the music, clients are doubling their pleasure. Dancing also provides the chance for community and socialization that allows us to connect with others, share experiences meet new people and improve mental health.  Movement to music relaxes our muscles, which allows us to release tension built up during the day, especially the one accumulated in the deepest part of the musculature. The power of connection to others and something greater than the self in the recovery process is crucial for success. This is building muscle memory for a client to appreciate and seek connection with others as they move forward in recovery in the 12-step program or the recovery program of their choice.

Pump It Up: Physiological Benefits of Music Integration in Addiction Treatment

Something that is a staple at every Recovery Unplugged location is our “Pump-Up” module. Recovery Unplugged clients and staff alike engage in Pump-Up daily before work is begun. Going through the process of early recovery is stressful and anxiety-provoking; Pump-Up’s primary objective is to take participants outside of themselves and refocus their energy for the day so they can start with a “clean state”.

Music can help jumpstart the process of recovery first thing in the morning by activating neural pathways, activating reward centers in the brain and moving toward treatment goals from the start of the day.  For staff members, Pump-Up is practiced before our morning staffing meeting where we go over the day’s work, dance for about three or four minutes. This allows our staff to reset their minds to be present for our clients each day.

For our clients, Pump-Up starts with the facilitating therapist announcing the topic of the day and saying a few words about it. This is followed by a short motivational video pertaining to the topic, followed by the same three-to-four-minute dance. Clients often smile, laugh and move freely during this exercise. Many of our alumni have reported this to be beneficial to them with refocusing on what needs to be accomplished for the day and be present.

Not Music Therapy: Using Musical Engagement to Motivate Treatment

One of the common misconceptions about Recovery Unplugged is that we offer traditional music therapy. We are actually using evidenced-based practices for substance abuse treatment such as interventions derived from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) and solution-focused therapy. Integrating music into the group and individual therapy processes can be as simple as playing a song to begin the group that is based on the scheduled topic of discussion or could be as complex as having a client identify songs that describe the different aspects of their life or personality traits. This comes from an experiential and existential standpoint in that we are trying to open creative pathways for our clients to help them express themselves in ways that they did not see possible in other attempts–“Music Speaks when words don’t”.

We also incorporate music into our work with families by having clients’ family members dedicate a song to their loved one while they are in our care. This has been proven to be a beneficial intervention in allowing family members who may have toxic communication patterns to speak differently to one another. Clients and families have reported this intervention to be beneficial to their care.

Removing the Labels: Destigmatizing Addiction to Maximize Effectiveness of Substance Abuse Therapy

Perhaps what we pride ourselves in most at Recovery Unplugged is how we treat our clients with respect. Addicts and alcoholics are historically stigmatized in our society and are used to being treated lesser than or as a number. Individualized care is at the forefront of our clinical processes. No two people with the same diagnosis or substance use disorder can be treated in the same manner.

We use an eclectic approach to our clinical program because we are treating people with disorders not just treating disorders. While customized care plans are an essential component of our treatment, music often ends up being the unifier that brings clients together.

Ultimately, our main priority for care at Recovery Unplugged is the “Client Experience”. Our interactive groups and creative methods allow clients to not only receive information but to have an experience in treatment. People remember experiences better than information. Our goal is for clients to attach and “anchor” information to their experiences at Recovery Unplugged in order to be able to utilize the skills and information learned in treatment towards their life in recovery. Music helps them anchor these experiences by tying them to something even more tangible.

The philosophy behind Recovery Unplugged is to use music as a catalyst to engage people into evidenced-based practices for substance abuse and mental health treatment.  Music can help clients connect emotions, experiences, memories, and behaviors in the brain.  Music can make a person laugh, cry, bring back memories both good and bad. It can serve as an “anchor” to emotions related to different experiences. Recovery Unplugged can teach clients to use music in substance abuse therapy as a powerful tool in their recovery as it helps them build new skills for living.

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