Childhood Trauma – Music as a Tool to Empower and Rebuild our Quality of Life

A lot of studies about music listening - especially when it comes to its effects on our psyche - can arguably be linked to discussions about healing the inner child.

The trouble with focusing on our wounded childlike selves, or even our existing grown selves is that it becomes to easy to stay fixated on our adverse childhood experiences that it becomes seemingly impossible to break out of bad habits, learned triggers or unhealthy responses.

Think of it like this: if you are someone who was emotionally abused or neglected as a kid, it's easy to come to the conclusion that - as an adult - you'll similarly be triggered by partners, friends or even colleagues using certain language, or shutting down when they're annoyed or upset. BUT if we stay married to the idea that every time a specific phrase is used, it logically means x, instead of y: the momentum of that negative thought can have dire outcomes.

So what if there was a way to redirect the momentum of being triggered in a more positive direction?

What if we could transfer the psychological impact of even as something as traumatic as sexual or physical abuse to move us towards a more empowered, strong and brave sense of self?

What if something as simple as music can help?

[Note: this blog post may get a little personal, and therefore: might be a little triggering. Please understand that as I share these stories and learnings, I do with respect of your lived experience, and love for who you are right here in this moment. At the same time, however, I want to make note that even as we strive to protect our kids from the scary and harmful things we each endured as teenagers... it would be irresponsible of us to assume that they haven't experienced trauma themselves. We all experience trauma differently, of course, but trauma is trauma].

Now... let's dig in.

What is Childhood Trauma?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, childhood trauma is defined as:   “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.”

As per my above graphic at the beginning of this post: this might include anything from physical and emotional abuse to living with someone who struggles with mental health issues, or drug and alcohol addiction. Losing a parent is also considered an adverse childhood experience - whether through death or incarceration -, as is witnessing any form of domestic violence within the home.

Each of these traumas, when left not dealt with, can have some scary ramifications or consequences:

  • difficulties trusting

  • low self-esteem

  • fears of being judged

  • constant attempts to please

  • outbursts of frustration

  • social anxiety symptoms that won’t let up

  • smoking

  • eating disorders

  • substance use

  • other high-risk activities

  • diabetes

  • heart disease

It's easy to brush off these adverse childhood traumas as things they'll grow up and forget about ["they're too young to understand what's going on"], but the simple fact is that trauma affects us on a seemingly cellular level.... therefore your resilient 4year old may end up holding on to the emotional responses that they feel up during any adverse experiences until well into adulthood.

Maya Angelou said it best:

Your four year old may not quite be able to put words to the feelings, but the feelings are certainly there... lingering.... until we provide them with an opportunity to identify, understand and start to process them.

Which is when music can play a pivotal role.

Whether we listen to classical music [Debussy, Brahms, and Bach], background music [hello: Enya, Tosca and Massive Attack], or the relatively new popular genre known as wholetones [396Hz, 417Hz, 444Hz, 528Hz or 741Hz] one of the benefits of music listening is simply that it helps to lower our blood pressure. To take things even further, however, research suggests that listening to music:

  • Releases dopamine

  • Decreases cortisol

  • Aids in sleep

  • Decreases depression

  • Can prevent over-eating

  • Improves learning and memory

  • Reduces pain

  • Keeps your brain motivated, and healthy

  • Raises IQ and academic performance

  • Increases verbal intelligence

Obviously, these are all fantastic positive aspects to mental health, but that last one is a biggie. Listening to music can be huge young people to not just reflect on and understand their own traumatic experiences as children, but also to aid them in finding the correct words to identify their feelings, and express themselves effectively.

There are multiple ways we can utilize the act of music listening to aid this process:

  1. Listening to the right song in order to recall specific events or circumstances

  2. Listening to a classical music piece to then cognitively start to paint a picture of feelings or ideas that come to mind in response to the music

  3. Simply guiding a young person through meditation, breath work or sitting in whatever emotions come to the surface when a certain song is played.

But what if we took things even further, and guided your young person, or even your not-so-young person to really step into both the power of music, and their verbal intelligence to not just start identifying their feelings, but turning them into their own songs of strength and resilience, recovering from traumatic memories, transforming their stress into songs, and learning to the positive silver linings in those adverse experiences they underwent as a child.

I'm not saying it's easy.

But if studies about music therapy and listening to music have already indicated that music can help with stimulating dopamine [bonding] and oxytocin [happiness] levels, as well as reducing cortisol [stress] levels, and we've already identified its other health benefits... it only makes sense to guide our young people down a more self-directed journey of healing.

That self-directed journey is, of course, the power of music and songwriting together.

Giving everyone who's experienced adverse childhood trauma, and is struggling to find a way through the trauma: songwriting gives us a unique ability to:

  • Simplify the overwhelming thoughts, by focusing each song on a specific topic - there's plenty of other songs we can write about each other topic that is troubling you!

  • Identify the specific feelings, thoughts or events that are leading to the sense of overwhelm or anxiety

  • Understand better why we're feeling that specific way in response to any of the adverse experiences we've had - this process might be done by writing the songs directed at either themselves, the person inflicting the trauma, or even the emotion as if it were a person

  • Overcome, or come to a place of peace, when it comes to each and every pain point.

Let me give you an example.

This is Intrusive by one of my past clients: Sydney Witt.

When Sydney first came to me, as a 17 year old in quarantine about to graduate from high-school: it would be fair to say she was overwhelmed. Her anxiety would visit her most often in the late evening, so she decided during one of our sessions together to look at the concept of anxiety as a person, and write a song to that overwhelm.

By writing this piece, she was able to feel like she was in much more control when it came to her mental and emotional health and responses to triggers or stressors.

The silver linings, therefore were as follows:

  • She started to identify what each overwhelming thought was trying to tell her

  • She began to understand that those stressors were her protective responses that she could honor, without having to hold on to them

  • She was able to begin lovingly letting go of each intrusive thought that visited her at night

  • She was able to take more control of how she directed her thinking

  • Complete side note: she was able to use the song she wrote as part of her college admission... which landed her at a very good school working with none other than Paul McCartney.

We all experience trauma.... and we all wear it differently. As such: each and every one of us is going to write, sing and express a completely different song to the next person, but that's part of the beauty of the rather unique form of music therapy that I'm so passionate about: songwriting.

Music can help us heal so many parts of our wounded souls - and whether that's listening to background music, classical music or writing songs... it's important to let ourselves lean into those sometimes scary parts of our personal histories, and let ourselves start to transform the anxiety into positive.

Your inner child will thank you, and your healed adult self will be amazed at how much easier navigating the world can be when you have a self-written anthem or album of anthems written by you, for you... and your teenager's inner child will be equally surprised.

One of my favorite sayings I ever heard was the following:

We all have the answers in us. We just need to be brave enough to write the song.

If you'd like to learn about how you can work with me to make that song a reality, I'd love to set up a free, no-strings-attached discovery call to learn more about what you or your teenager is going through, and how this unique version of music therapy might be the right fit for your journey through mental and emotional health in the face of adverse childhood trauma.

I look forward to speaking with you soon.

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