Music-Based Sensory Therapy Alleviates Symptoms of Anxiety

Vignesh Subramanian ’24

Figure 1: Anxiety disorders are mental health conditions involving constant and overwhelming emotional states of fear or panic.

Anxiety disorders are mental health conditions involving excessive nervousness and fear, which are often characterized by distinct phobias, restlessness, and panic attacks. Many conditions spanning the spectrum of anxiety disorders are diagnostically linked to early stressful life events (ELS) in an individual’s development, which compound the stresses of traumatic or rapidly transformational experiences and negatively rewire signaling patterns in key neural pathways. Among these pathways is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a cascade of endocrine responses that drive hypercortisolemia, or prolonged production of cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone, when overstimulated. Given that vast numbers of patients do not respond to anti-anxiety medications, recent studies have explored calm-inducing approaches such as listening to music, which has been noted for its neurochemical effect of containing cortisol secretion levels and thus easing anxiety levels. A study led by Ryerson University researchers aimed to better understand the relationship between sound-based neuromodulatory treatments and the presence of anxiety symptoms.

The researchers sampled 163 patients with middle to high levels of trait anxiety who were already taking anxiolytics, or anti-anxiety medications, and collected information on their personality and musical preferences. Each subject was then randomly assigned to one of four sound-based treatment groups and submitted to a listening session under the designated condition. The first treatment consisted of exposure to auditory beat stimulation (ABS), or the use of sound waves of particular frequency ranges to produce neural responses. The second treatment involved slow-tempo excerpts and sequences of music, based on an effective recommendation system. The third was a combination of ABS and music, and the fourth was pink noise control, a spectrum of background sounds with amplified lower frequencies. Finally, pre- and post-intervention cognitive and somatic state anxiety measures were taken to assess and compare effects.

The researchers found that patients with moderate trait anxiety who were exposed to the combined sound (joint music & ABS) condition demonstrated the greatest reduction in both physical (somatic) and cognitive anxiety symptoms. Furthermore, patients with high trait anxiety who underwent the music-alone condition experienced a greater reduction of both symptom manifestations than those exposed to the ABS-alone condition. These findings reaffirm the fact that sound-based treatments are generally effective in reducing cognitive and somatic state anxiety, drawing upon the ability of music to reduce tension and trigger transient, positive shifts in an individual’s brain activity and emotional state. 

Works Cited:

[1] A. Mallik and F. Russo, The effects of music & auditory beat stimulation on anxiety: A randomized clinical trial. PLOS ONE 17, 1-18 (2022). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0259312

[2] Image retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Figure_5._Anxiety_can_leave_a_person_feeling_extremely_sad.jpg

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