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Music in Sobriety: Meditative Effects

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I (vaguely) remember coming home from nights out when I was drinking/using and blasting music on my headphones. I thought the substances were adding something. But after a short time, I would pass out. By the next day I’d only remember fragments.

Music activates the same reward pathways in the brain that get hijacked by drugs and alcohol. These pathways are how we derive pleasure from healthy activities like eating, connecting with others, appreciating art. The addicted brain derives less pleasure from these types of activities. It has tunnel vision for the substance of choice, even as using becomes less and less pleasurable.

Studies have found that brainwaves respond to beats. With faster beats come sharper and more alert thinking. A slower tempo promotes calm.

Actively listening to music has become part of my recovery. Sometimes when I’m struggling, dance parties can be a kind of therapy. This is true whether I’m with friends or alone with my headphones.  

Music can put me into a meditative state. As a discursive thinker (someone who generally has a dialogue going in their head) this is not an easy place to get to unassisted.

Darin McFayden—a DJ and producer who is also trained in the Yogic, Tibetan Buddhist and Theravada Buddhist meditative traditions—sees a lot of parallels between listening to music and meditating. As he says: “When you’re fully lost in music you’re getting a taste of nirvana without any of the rigorous training.” Both music and meditation, he points out, help us quiet our mental chatter and take us into the present.

Music is also linked to empathy. Zachary Wallmark, lead researcher of a study on music and empathy, said, “Music may be this crucial ingredient that evolved over many years to help us navigate our social environment, increase social bonding, and coordinate with others.” His study found that people with higher empathy had more activation in the brain’s pleasure centers when listening to music.

But listening to music can also increase empathy, according to numerous studies. This is similar to lovingkindness and other types of meditation, which ideally promote a feeling of oneness with others.  

In one study, two groups of children participated for a full school year in weekly group activities encouraging interaction and imitation. The only difference between the two group’s activities: one involved music, the other didn’t.

At the end of the year, the kids were given several tests measuring empathy. One test had the children agree or disagree with statements like: “I really like to watch people open presents, even when I don’t get a present myself.” The kids in the music group showed higher levels of empathy.

Increasing your empathy is a worthwhile pursuit in sobriety. Even as someone who has chosen a route other than AA, I know that being of service is a well-established and beneficial part of recovery.

The awesome thing is that music is readily available. And you don’t have to twist most people’s arms to make them listen to it. It doesn’t have to be the ambient stuff they play in spas for it to be meditative. The more you actually enjoy the music, the better the effects.  

At Amatus Recovery Centers facilities in Georgia, we offer sound healing. This is a type of therapy that uses music and sound to promote recovery. Sound Healing can help reduce tension and anxiety, and increase feelings of well-being

At all of our recovery centers across the country, we offer premier treatment for addiction and co-occurring disorders. Our staff, many of whom are in recovery themselves, truly care about helping people get and stay sober. At our addiction treatment centers, we will help you build healthy coping mechanisms and thrive in long-term recovery.