Spring is meant to be the time of renewal, rebirth, re-invention and reconnection with the people and activities we love. For the past couple in a COVID world, however, many have found it challenging to simply navigate everyday life, or to feel the renewal associated with spring. For others, the isolation and anxiety they experienced during that time led them into a downward spiral caused by overwhelming stress and anxiety.
The cumulative psychological side effects from a seemingly unending global pandemic have made us more vulnerable. Well-documented conditions that can lead to depression, like financial stress, physical stagnation, and feelings of isolation, are more common than in prior years. Add the stress of world events, inflation, raising prices and prolonged quarantines.
While many mental health sites and organizations offer valuable tips for coping with these conditions, and for navigating everyday life, few offer practical information on how to use one of the most powerful time-tested and scientifically-validated resources you already know and love – Music.
Although it’s not a cure for everything, music is a great resource for quickly shifting your mental state and amplifying joy and positivity during the holiday season. Like stress, music directly impacts the parts of the brain that process emotions, human connection, and movement. Music even affects your subconscious mind, home of those pesky negative thoughts and old stories that fuel the fires of stress. Moreover, music is readily available, inexpensive, quick-acting, and free of negative side effects.
Following are 5 simple ways you can Reduce Stress and Amplify the Joy in your everyday life:
1. Rise and Shine
Imagine if the sun bolted into the sky each morning like the sudden switching on of a floodlight, or if every day started with a sonic BOOM. The animal kingdom might declare a state of emergency.
According to neuroscientist Theodore Zanto – lead researcher at the UCSF Neuroscape labs, shocking your brain out of a deep sleep with a jarring alarm clock or a radio station blaring the morning news can elicit a neurochemical response similar to that of an animal being woken by a life-threatening predator. That’s a bit counterproductive to a good night’s sleep or the ideal beginning of a stress-free day.
Alternatively, waking to a familiar piece of music can help ease you into the day like a beautiful sunrise and start you off in a better mood. While it might not make you leap out of bed (or out of your skin for that matter), it’s a good way to prevent spiking your nervous system with that neurochemical stress-cocktail cortisol first thing in the morning.
The right wake-up music is easy to program with a smartphone or clock radio that allows you to assign a song as your alarm. There are also alarm clocks that offer more pleasant sounds (like chimes or music), that start softly and gradually grow louder the longer you take to respond.
Once you are up and moving, fill your room with beautiful and inspiring music. Create a playlist or keep a CD of music you love ready at hand. Choose music that relaxes, inspires, and puts you in the right state of mind. A positive morning-music ritual is a sure way to start your day in a better mood.
2. Set Your Daily Groove
Psychologist and author of The Joy of Movement, Dr. Kelly McDonigal, tells us that the right holiday blend of regular movement and exercise is the #1 way to reduce stress and ensure greater health and happiness. And music is a scientifically-validated way to amplify that positive effect on your mind and body.
Motivation and Movement both come from the same Latin root, and music engages both the motor cortex and emotional centers of the brain, providing the perfect neuro-stimulator to get you up and keep you moving.
If you have a daily exercise routine, take music along with you. A morning walk or run, even yoga or stretching, can become easier and more enjoyable if you have music as your personal companion.
Put on your DJ hat and create your personal Power Playlist to rock your run and add some groove to your moves. It might take a little trial and error to create the mix that works best for you, so be patient and have fun with the process. Remember that the underlying theme of both music and athletics is to PLAY.
Can’t seem to find the time for that daily exercise but like to dance? Try a ‘one-song dancercise’ in the privacy of your home, sport a few cool moves as you move around your office or neighborhood, or two-step your way across the parking lot to your car.
By combining the benefits of physical exercise and listening to music, dancing is a fantastic way to reduce stress while having fun. And to tie the bow to the gift of music, dancing has been shown to improve both cognitive function and immunity. If you are not careful, it might even make you happy.
3. Sing and Play
If you want to take the positive effects of music to another level, try singing in the morning (or all day long, if you’re so inclined). As the quote from Peter Pan goes, “If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing.” So take flight with your soaring voice, either acapella, with a friend accompanying you, or along with a favorite recording.
When you are looking for a good stressbuster or a joy-booster, singing can help regulate your breathing and heart rate, reduce anxiety, increase oxygenation to your cells, improve your immunity, and increase the release of the feel-good neurochemicals dopamine and oxytocin.
Don’t worry about whether you are a good singer. This is not about performing or putting yourself in another stressful situation. Just let go and let your voice express itself through song. Sing in the shower; sing in the car; sing with your kids, or hum a lullaby before you go to sleep.
In the wise words of philosopher and psychologist William James:
“I don’t sing because I’m happy. I’m happy because I sing.”
Still reluctant to sing, but know how to play an instrument? If so, you have another stress-busting power tool at your fingertips.
According to Dr. Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music, playing music has been shown to increase the body’s production of the antibody Immunoglobulin A, as well as natural killer cells – the cells that attack invading viruses and boost the immunity system. Playing and singing music with others can help reduce levels of the undesirable stress hormone cortisol and increase the brain’s production of that feel-good neurochemical Oxytocin.
Whether you are a well-versed musician or just beginning to learn how to play an instrument, spend a few minutes each day playing music. It can be simple scales or rudimentary exercises, a favorite song, or something improvisational. Even Albert Einstein tapped into music’s ability to recharge his brain, unleash creativity, and light up those motor synapses that refuel our engines when he was feeling stuck.
Singing and playing music are two of the best ways to clear your mind of holiday worries, amplify the joy of the season, and bring a sense of vitality to the trillions of cells in your brain and body.
4. Get Your Traffic Jam On
I don’t know about you, but one of the quickest ways that I become stressed is by sitting in gridlocked traffic and worrying that I might be late for an important appointment or scheduled dinner.
Unfortunately, getting stressed doesn’t make the time pass slower nor does the traffic move faster. Rather than limiting your commute to catching up on the latest bad news or squeezing in more stressful work calls, why not take advantage of the secluded environment of your car to practice shifting your mood through music?
You can start by stocking your car with a collection of your favorite music, setting your radio to your favorite DJ, or having your Power Playlists ready at hand. If you have a regular commute, those long, slow drives can also be a great time to explore new music and add more colors to your musical palette.
Singing along will take the positive effects of your traffic jams to a whole new level. Being alone in the car is the perfect opportunity to let your voice sing out without the fear of anyone hearing or judging you. If you are sharing the ride, encourage your fellow passengers to join you as you explore musical ways to pass the time and get to know each other better. You can do this by simply agreeing on some relaxing background music to play behind your morning dialogue, sharing your favorite songs and artists with one another, or finding something you all enjoy and singing along together.
You can redefine the meaning of ‘traffic jam’ by using music to help you destress, get your groove on, and lift your spirits. Don’t be surprised if you witness a few blank stares from other stressed-out drivers jealously watching your car rock to the beat and its driver — you — emulating unmitigated states of joy.
5. Change Your Bedtime Story
Optimize founder and optimal-living exemplar Brian Johnson tells us our best mornings start the night before. The abundance of scientific research in Arianna Huffington’s book The Sleep Revolution confirms that one of the biggest contributors to anxiety – one that makes us more vulnerable to other life stressors – is a bad night’s sleep. Do yourself and your brain a big favor: shut down those blue-light-generating, attention-stealing digital devices, turn down the lights, and put on some relaxing music to prepare yourself for a more restful slumber.
There is ample scientific evidence validating the therapeutic use of music to reduce anxiety, regulate emotional arousal, support the parasympathetic nervous system, reduce cortisol levels, improve your mood, and even decrease negative thoughts – all of which are factors that can impact the quality of your sleep.
No matter how much stress creeps into your day, you can choose to write a more peaceful conclusion to your story. Making that hour before sleep sacred is one of the surest ways to prepare yourself for a more restorative night and help you feel more refreshed and energized the following day.
Although it might not sound like as much fun as dancing across your boss’s desk or as tempting as one more slice of pumpkin pie, committing to a nightly musical evening wind-down hour might be the most important step you take for your well-being, as well as your overall mood and energy this spring.