Why Music Might Increase Your Resilience to Chronic Pain

I’m a musician. Not professionally of course, but it is definitely part of my identity. I began playing the piano at age 5. I took lessons until I graduated from high school. I took practical and theory exams with Conservatory Canada (formerly the Western Board of Music) to the point that I have Grade 8 practical and Grade 4 theory. In junior high and high school I played the alto sax in band and jazz band. In high school I sang in the choir, played they keyboard for one of our vocal jazz groups, sang in another vocal jazz group, and always had a role in the school musicals. To this day, I still play my piano daily and sing along with songs as they come on the radio. I can play about 3 chords on the guitar, and I swear I’m going to take lessons one day! As a mental health professional I have also learned a lot about music and resilience.

Check out this podcast episode with singer-songwriter Sarah Luby who has T1D and UCTD.

Resilience can be defined as the ability to adjust to change or difficulties in life. Resilience utilizes our emotional strengths and our awareness of and ability to use our coping mechanisms to overcome adversity (Merriam-Webster, 2021). Resilience is also key to dealing effectively with chronic illness and chronic pain. Why? Because things are constantly changing and adapting. We have strong emotions and thoughts about our situations and these can often lead to depression and anxiety as well. We need to and want to be able to cope with what is happening. Yet many of us struggle with resilience for several different reasons, from childhood experiences to the pain itself and a lot in between. The good thing is we can learn to develop more resilience.

There is a ton of research on the benefits of music, such as increasing self-awareness, being more socially connected to others, and it helps to regulate mood (Schafer et al, 2013). It also enhances self-regulation, initiative and helps to strengthen relationships with others, not just connect us with them. Resilience skills in general do the same with our self-regulation, awareness, mood, initiative and relationships. There is a lot of overlap, so it makes sense that music would be helpful for this. In terms of how music builds resilience specifically, there is the idea of ‘musicking’ or our musical life in terms of an I-Thou relationship (this is an interesting existential idea that allows us to engage in perspective-taking, which in itself increases resilience as I’ve seen first-hand with my clients). The relationships of sounds, bodies, and psyches as presented in musical compositions/song builds this perspective-taking ability (Malloch & Trevarthen, 2018). Beyond this, musician can communicate musicality in order to enliven both themselves and listeners. (Malloch & Trevarthen, 2018). Therefore, listening to music, not just playing it, can build reslience.

In a clinical setting, music can be used in two different way. Music Therapists use specific music interventions to help individuals with their specific goals, mood regulation, resilience, etc. in an individual or group therapy setting. There is specific training to be able to do this. The other is “music for wellness” which is having musical experiences – listening, playing, etc. – for the purpose of wellbeing and general functioning. As I’m not a music therapist, I encourage my clients to engage in the latter, which is also how I engage with music.

I have since had my actual upright grand piano shipped to me. So much better to play on!

Music for chronic pain has also been studied. For example, in a palliative care setting, music was found to actually decrease chronic pain in patients, which I found super interesting. This really ties into the resiliency. Typically when we are more resilient our pain either actually decreases or just doesn’t bother us as much. Honestly, I’m fine with either scenario. The last few days my knee has been hurting a lot. I’m not sure if it’s related to my UCTD or my hyper-mobile knee joints (my physio thinks they’re related to each other). I do notice that when I play the piano, or even just listen to music while I’m on a walk, my pain is less noticeable. Perhaps because of distraction or perhaps because the music is building my ability to be resilient, not just in those moments but throughout life. Take a listen to this podcast episode with musician and music teacher Melissa, who has multiple chronic illnesses.

Pick a song to listen to, play, or sing along with today and see if that helps you to keep making the most of it!

Sophrosyne

This week I thought we’d examine the Greek word/philosophy of sophrosyne and how it applies to living with a chronic illness. The word was first introduced during a daily post on my favourite mindfulness app. I did some subsequent research and really felt it aligned well with many of my personal beliefs and values, as well as research I’ve read in other areas concerning both physical and mental health. So, I’m bringing this concept to all of you, because I think we can all learn from it and apply it to our lives in meaningful ways.

The Greek goddess of discretion, temperance, and moderation. Image from: https://greekerthanthegreeks.com/2015/04/the-greeks-had-word-for-it-sophrosyne.html

Let’s start with the meaning of the work. Sophrosyne was a Greek goddess of discretion, temperance, and moderation. Many people really hone in on the moderation part of this, and it’s sometimes considered “mindful moderation” when talked about currently. In Greek times, it also meant “excellence of character and soundness of mind” which is what created a “well-balanced” person. Moving forward in time, there are ties to Catholicism, in which moderation is considered the final of the cardinal virtues. Jumping ahead again, Nietzche considered moderation or self-control a virtue which could be extended to self-knowledge. It is the perfect union of self-knowledge and self-restraint, thus the moderation bit. And now, as my parents have always said “moderation rules the nation,” where they referring to sophrosyne? It would appear so.

We all have many opportunities to practice moderation. How well do you do?

Why is this important, or rather, how can it help Spoonies and Chronic Illness Warriors? Well, lots of ways actually. Moderation generally requires us to be mindful of what we’re doing. We can moderate our food intake, for example, if we pay attention to how many chips we just ate, or with drinking as in how many beers we just drank. For chronic illness, this type of mindful moderation helps with self-care (which if you’re a premium content subscriber you know has benefits for physical well-being, emotional well-being, intellectual well-being, social well-being, spiritual well-being, and even work well-being). It also can help with medication management (because we know if we took our medication/properly), with emotional regulation (how we deal with our emotions so they are effective), and can decrease stress (we’re not putting ourselves into stressful situations and can recognize when we are in them, giving us the opportunity to turn away). On top of this, the mindfulness piece has a number of benefits for mental and physical health, many of which I’ve blogged about – but you can also listen to on this podcast episode.

Engaging in mindful moderation can have many benefits to health.

So, how can we practice sophrosyne in our lives? Moderation isn’t always the easiest thing to do, especially if it’s not something we’re used to. Here are three ways:

  1. Practice regular mindfulness – this could be formal meditation, mindful eating, mindful walking, or really doing anything while being fully present in the moment.
  2. Relaxation – using techniques to help keep us calm make it easier to engage in mindful moderation. Again, formal meditation works, as does breathing and progressive muscle relaxation exercise, journaling (I like the gratitude journal personally), or going to therapy to talk about our problems.
  3. Emotional Regulation – by learning and practicing emotional regulation skills we become less likely to be impulsive, and therefore, more likely to be able to engage in moderation.

I started a meditation and mindfulness channel on YouTube that currently has meditations, relaxation exercises, and grounding techniques. I will be adding more informal practices in the coming weeks. You can check out the channel here. Like and subscribe so I can keep bringing more content to it.

New mindfulness practices added weekly.

I’m going to continue to try my best to live the ideal of sophrosyne because I can see the benefits it can have and does have on my life, including my chronic illness and my mental health. I hope it can do the same for you, as you keep making the most of it!

The Half Smile

The concept of the half smile is part of two things I’m passionate about: psychology/psychotherapy and mindfulness. But how can this help people with chronic illness? Surely smiling will make no difference on my health, so why force myself to do this half smile thing? If this is not your first time reading this blog then you know that I don’t write about finding cures, I write about ways to improve the overall quality of our lives. Health and mental health are so intrinsically tied together. If our physical health is poor, our mental health tends to suffer. If our mental health is poor, we are more susceptible to physical health problems. And so, I present to you a small way to improve your mental health, as part of this overall, holistic way of viewing health.

The Half Smile.

In psychology, we look at the half smile as a way to regulate emotions and improve mood. For one, it’s almost impossible to be angry if you’re smiling. Try it. Very unlikely that you can stay mad while having a half smile on. Same goes with many other emotions. Most people have a difficult time at some point in their lives, or just consistently, regulating their emotions. It can be difficult when you’re in the heat of the moment. And there are many, many aspects to learning how to regulate them if you’re currently struggling in that area (and these vary slightly depending on which form of psychotherapy you subscribe to). The half smile is one technique you can try out. It is probably most helpful with anger and frustration, but can work with other intense emotions. I want to caution you and mention that it is not meant to be a way to get rid of your emotions. Emotions are good! It is a way to help get them to be more appropriate in intensity to the situation you are experiencing. The byproduct of this is often mood improvement. Plus, as I’m sure many of you have heard before – it takes more muscles to frown than to smile.

The idea of the half smile originates from Buddhism. Now, I’m not religious, but more spiritual. So if the idea of this coming from Buddhism throws you, I get it. I personally practice mindfulness from secular approach. However, if you look at statues of Buddha, he does have a half smile. And actually, if you look at the Mona Lisa, she also has a half smile, which is interesting. When we are mindful of our emotions, body sensations, facial expression, thoughts, and all other cognitions, we have the ability to control our behaviour. When we are aware, we can be present. When we are present, we can find some peace. When we are peaceful, half smiling comes much more naturally. Sometimes when doing guided meditations, the person delivering them might even suggest a half smile. Notice how that changes the practice for you. For me, I find it helps me become a lot lighter. I also want to point out that there is a lot of research supporting mindfulness being helpful in lessening the intensity of chronic pain and other physical ailments. Here’s the podcast episode about it that goes into some of the research.

She’s half smiling too.

My suggestion here is to just try it out. Whether you’re struggling with mood, emotional regulation, chronic illness, or all of the above. There might be even a small improvement in your life, and we should celebrate all wins, including the little ones.

Don’t forget that I’ve got a self-care challenge coming up in a few weeks. It’s only $5 to subscribe to that content and will contain support, information, action planning, and overall upping your self care game!

Keep making the most of it!

Spoonie Stress

It’s not really a surprise that Spoonies have more stress than healthy folks. Chronic illness and chronic pain warriors just have a lot more to deal with. Coming up with ways to relieve stress is important, and something I try to pay attention to. As stress accumulates it can lead to mental health problems, and quite often, especially with autoimmune diseases, flares. Today I thought we’d focus on some causes of stress and I’ll give some ideas (that work for me) for you to try out to see if they help at all.

Stress is an evolutionary response.

First, I thought we’d start off with a few definitions. The reason I want to give these is that often as a therapist-in-training, I see that people don’t really understand the meanings of the words they use, nor are they aware of the difference appropriate emotional responses and ones that don’t fit the situation.

  • stress – normal, physiological reaction caused by the fight-flight-freeze response in our brains, alerting us that something needs our attention. It’s neither good nor bad, but is a signal telling us that we need to act on something. podcast
  • anxiety – “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure” (American Psychological Association). Anxiety is also not inherently good or bad. It’s another natural response of the fight-flight-freeze part of our brain. It’s also normal and part of what makes us human. There is no way to be totally free of anxiety. Fear, on the other hand can be extremely protective and it can be easily confused with anxiety. podcast
    • Anxiety disorder: anxiety that is out of proportion with the situation, and is long-lasting and severe can indicate an anxiety disorder. Someone with an anxiety disorder has “recurring, intrusive thoughts or concerns” (APA)
  • depression: an emotional disorder that can include feelings of sadness, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, and low energy and motivation. Sadness is a common emotion that is important to our functioning. Depression occurs when sadness doesn’t just “go away” on its own. Both anxiety disorders and depression are helped with psychological treatments. blog, podcast
  • trauma – “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea” (APA). I’ve heard this one be misused often, so just be aware of whether you’re actually experiencing trauma. This can also be helped with psychological treatments.
Understanding mental health concepts can be helpful for managing it.

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way. What are some common causes of stress in Spoonies?

  • physical symptoms – flares, pain, and basically any other annoying and/or debilitating symptom that comes with your chronic illness. blog
  • medical gaslighting – when a doctor or healthcare professional dismisses your pain and/or symptoms. podcast
  • interpersonal relationships – difficulties with your partner, family, or friends often stemming from a lack of understanding of your illness. blog
  • finances/insurance – even with insurance there is a cost of medications and other treatments that may not be covered or give you as much coverage as you need. blog
Side effect from my hip arthroscopy that definitely caused me some stress.

These are of course, just a few, and you may experience a lot of other stressors depending on your illness and overall life situation. The point out reducing stressors like this is to improve your overall quality of life. So, here are some suggestions that I’ve found to be helpful for each of these (I’m going to link some of my other posts and podcast episodes in case you want more in-depth information).

  • Mindfulness, exercise, sleep, and diet. This means daily practice of whatever way you stay present. Getting whatever type of exercise is accessible during the day (even if it’s a short walk). Practicing good sleep hygiene. And eating as healthy a diet as you can. podcast, podcast, podcast, podcast (yes, one for each of these).
  • Being a self-advocate when it comes to your health and knowing your rights. The medical gaslighting podcast episode I mentioned earlier goes into being a self-advocate. For disability rights check out this podcast.
  • Effective communication and emotional regulation. We can’t control other people but we can definitely control ourselves, even if our emotions are high. podcast
  • Budgeting, budgeting, budgeting. I am without health insurance for the first time in many years. And yes, I live in Canada where healthcare is “Free” (with the exceptions of medications, dentistry, and adjunct care such as physio/chiro/naturopath/massage/etc). Yet I’ve seen the chiropractor twice in the past 3 months (with another appointment today) and gone for a massage. I’ve very meticulously budgeted these in because they are so helpful. The blog post mentioned for finances incorporates budgeting.
There are lots of ways to decrease stress. I enjoy some light exercise in nature.

On top of all this, practicing self-care (podcast) is very helpful. If you don’t like the term “self-care” because it’s been waaaay overused in the media than maybe think of it is as “ways to improve my overall health.” It includes domains of : physical, emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, and work. It is also incredibly helpful in reducing stress levels. I’m going to be hosting a self-care challenge starting on April 24 on the premium blog. To sign up for the challenge it is only $5 and you get 4 weekly premium posts, motivation for the challenge, ideas and help with the challenge, and an opportunity to be featured on the blog and/or podcast! Stay tuned for more!

Until next week Spoonies, keep making the most of it!