Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Music in Your Face for PTSD Awareness Month

There’s monotony about most “healing music” out there: it’s peaceful, serene and well, quite boring ... to me.
Yes, it’s relaxing, Yes, it’s all about alpha wave, right brain transformative experience. And let's be honest: yes, it SELLS.
But is that what we really need?
One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned in therapy is that stuffing the feelings I don’t want is destructive to my psyche and wellbeing. Before therapy, I was too good at doing that: keep a stiff upper lip; suck it up; forge ahead. But all that suppression wasn’t good for me.
Instead of that approach, it wasn’t until I learned to practice feeling emotions fully – in safety and with support – that I started to really transform. Everything up to that point was no better than using sticky tape and baling wire on an open wound.
Back to that mesmerizing music…
"Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,” wrote William Congreve in “The Mourning Bride” in 1697. There’s an enduring beauty to that phrase, and music certainly does have such power. But what’s not often remembered is the type of music Congreve must have imagined in his day.
Popular secular music in the early 18th Century was quite unlike music in the 21st Century. Back in Congreve’s day, unless you were in church, you’d hear a sackbut, a lute, possibly a hand drum and maybe some sort of whistle, accompanied by the sort of low, bowed string instrument that would become a modern cello. Hardly a peaceful orchestra, as anyone who’s actually heard an ancient sackbut can tell you. This sort of music is sometimes used in Shakespearian plays.
Perhaps Congreve was thinking more of the early vocal music just beginning to make its way out of the church into secular society – and there is some hauntingly beautiful late Renaissance vocal music out there. Henry Purcell’s compositions are great examples, and they are enchanting when performed by a modern orchestra. They must have been stunning in Congreve’s day, too, played on the best instruments available, which weren’t anything to write home about – by this time, Stradivarius would have made only a few dozen violins. Musicologists might debate the soothing values of Purcell’s most sublime works versus modern “healing” music but there’s an “apples to oranges” problem with doing so that pits the musical hoi polloi against, well, everyone else… and there goes any soothing effect.
One thing musical healers tend to forget is the psychotherapeutic fact that stuffing your troubles multiples their bad effects. Before one can get to any sort of soothing experience, it’s absolutely essential to let go of the traumatic stuff – the stuff that’s making you anxious, upset, depressed, whatever-the-feeling-that’s-not-what-you-want.
Playing a didgeridoo and Tibetan bowl for me when I’m all hopped up on posttraumatic stress is like adding kerosene to a fire. Not soothing. I understand the alpha wave science, but I don’t want to hear it at that moment. Instead, I need some heavy or def metal – Alice in Chains or Metallica – to help me feel the “bad” stuff fully.
So when I’m in that ugly place, I tend to reach for music that supports the ugly feelings I have. Those feelings – and the music I need – can be quite savage, so I make sure to use headphones so I can turn it up LOUD and listen in a safe place where I won’t hurt myself or anyone else (that is, NOT in the car or on my bike or in any other situation that requires me to split attention between the rage/anxiety/depression I’m feeling and the need to operate potentially dangerous equipment).
And then I listen to that sort of music until I no longer feel the rage/anxiety/depression of whatever triggered me. This speeds up the process of “getting it out” while preventing my acting out any of the feelings I don’t want in a destructive way.
ONLY then am I ready for something soothing.
I feel it’s a huge mistake to confront rage with “healing” music. At that moment, it does the rager no good to be met with some crystal-crunching anthem, and it could actually put the ragee in danger. I know: if someone gets in my face with “all there is is love” when what I’m actually feeling at that moment is anything but loved or loving, there’s going to be trouble.
Think about it: if you want to work out, you need physical support and pump-you-up music. When you are in the mood, you spin a sexy playlist. Eventually, your workout (or love-making) are over, and only then is it time for a different kind of music. So why wouldn’t you support feelings of rage/anxiety/depression with compatible music – for you – that lets you feel that stuff fully?
To recap:
1.     When traumatically stressed, use music to feel it fully in a safe place;
2.     Listen and feel that stuff until you can’t feel it any more;
THEN (and only then):
3.     Give yourself a “healing” music bath using whatever music brings you down easy.
Try it. Write and let me know how it goes.
And spread the word: June is PTS awareness month and every one of us needs to know how to use music to intervene – it’s easy and powerful.

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