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!

How Can I Become More Resilient?

This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about resiliency on this blog. The truth is, it’s a topic that comes up often. I see it on online support groups, on Instagram, and hear it in conversation with people. I also read it on other blogs, and many healthcare organizations post about it on their sites. Here’s the thing, if you have a chronic illness and you’re not feeling resilient, just know that you are not alone. A lot of people feel that way. Are people born resilient or do we develop resilience? I think it’s an interesting question and possibly a bit of both. Children tend to be more resilient than adults, suggesting we can lose some resilience as we age. In one of my courses for my graduate degree we had to more-or-less do a family tree. Except this family tree was supposed to trace something like a mental health or substance use issue. I chose to trace resilience, and found that going back just to my grandparents generation (that was the requirements for the project) there was a strong theme of resilience (my maternal grandmother/baba faced abuse, neglect, lost 2 children, and she and my mother were trapped in Siberia for a week during the Cold War – I know it sounds too crazy to be true). Yet she not only survived but was a loving parent to her other children and an amazing grandparent. Had my mom not shared my baba’s history I would not have know. She was that resilient.

Three generations of resilience in my family.

The good thing is, that even people with chronic illness can develop resilience. Warning: it does require work on your part. Luckily, some of the work may not feel like work at all… it just requires consistent commitment to it. I want to add, that many of these suggestions overlap with what the National MS Society suggests, in case you don’t want to just take my word for it.

  • finding meaning and committing to that action: what is the reason you get out of bed in the morning? If you don’t have a reason it will be difficult to do so. Is it your family? Or work? I know a lot of people with chronic illness go on disability, but work provides meaning and purpose for people. If you are on disability what is your purpose going to be instead?
  • improvisation/adaptability/problem solving: I think these all kind of overlap and go together. We often have to improvise in order to do things we enjoy. Maybe we can’t go on the 5k walk with our friends, but we could meet them for coffee afterwards. How flexible and adaptable are you to changing plans? Or asking others to? What’s an alternative way you can participate or do the things you like to do? I would go as far to make a list of ideas (remember when brainstorming there is no such thing as a dumb idea) and try out some to see if they work.
  • Self-care: we all know I love self-care, and this includes the basics (getting out of bed, making breakfast, taking a shower) and then doing activities like relaxation techniques, yoga, meditation, or prayer. What hobbies do you enjoy that you can participate in? Pick one a day. Reading is an example of something that is low energy and can be fulfiling.
  • Being able to tolerate “negative” emotions: I personally don’t categorize emotions as negative or positive. All emotions are important because they tell us very important things. If you’re not used to be able to just sit with emotions, try out this mindfulness practice that aims at helping people do just that.
  • Self-efficacy: I did a post on this recently, and you can read it here. Do you believe you can cope with your illness? Part of this is being a realistic optimist, being hopeful.
  • Using skills such as curiosity and humour: When is the last time you laughed? Are you able to have fun and joke around (and not in a self-deprecating way)? Do you get curious about your situation or feelings or sensations or emotions? What are you noticing about them right now as you read this? The noticing self is a helpful skill to develop. We touch on it in this podcast episode (about half way through).
  • Radical acceptance: This is a skill from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and essentially the same used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It is about fully accepting your situation/thoughts/feelings/sensations/etc. Fully. Accepting. It doesn’t mean you have to like it. It’s hard to do a lot of the above without this kind of acceptance.
My curious, nonjudgmental, accepting, “what am I noticing” face.

I hope this helps give you some ideas for building resilience some more. Well-being and a good quality of life do require us to be resilient, and trust me, it is possible even with chronic illness. Here’s the link to the MS Society page on resilience. Take care, and keep making the most of it!

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