Singing presents a wealth of benefits which aid in reducing stress, some widely recognised, some less so. We set out to explore some of these in more detail.
What is stress?
Stress is a natural response to a change in situation; a secretion of adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) preparing the body for emergency action.
Nature’s response to life threatening situations was designed for fast and brief action, not the ongoing pressures sadly ubiquitous in modern working life. Prolonged exposure to cortisol can be severely detrimental to our health.
In the UK, stress is now the primary reason for both short and long term work absence, accounting for 12.5 million days off per year and costing employers as much as £40bn according to the New Economics Foundation.
How can singing help?
Singing can help in a great number of ways, the catch-all wonder therapy that addresses many of the problems of modern living.
On:songwas founded on the firm, lived, belief in the therapeutic powers of song for body mind and soul. Our work with businesses over recent years, coupled with considerable ongoing research, has only served to reinforce this.
Read on as we delve into the principle ways singing reduces stress.
Singing induces a state of flow, putting us firmly ‘in the zone’ with a clear focus.
Singing forces us to be present in the moment, because mind and body synchronise coordinating a complex process: juggling pitch, tempo, rhythm, dynamics and lyrics.
This flow state takes focus away from stressful thoughts, and gives welcome respite to busy minds.
It is widely known that singing promotes the release of oxytocin and serotonin, which make us feel good. Add in movement or dance, as we often do when we sing, and the effect is emphasised, with increased blood flow helping to circulate cortisol out of our systems at a faster rate.
Less well known is that singing stimulates the vagus nerve that runs down the back of the throat and sinus cavity. When this nerve is stimulated it relaxes the body, naturally relieving tension by reducing the elevated heart rate caused by stress.
Laughter is incredibly effective at relaxing muscles, lowering blood pressure and reducing the stress hormone.
Whilst there are serious benefits to be derived from singing, it is generally a fun and light hearted activity, especially with colleagues and friends.
Choir practice and singing workshops are always filled with laughter, sometimes nervous at first, but progressing to become freer and more natural as singers get comfortable.
Shallow breathing is symptomatic of the stress response. Singing necessitates more controlled breathing, with drawn out exhalations through sung phrases interspersed with shorter and deeper inhalations in the gaps.
This deep breathing sends messages to your brain to relax, which in turn sends this same message back to the body.
Engaging one’s diaphragm is best practice in singing as in stress-relieving breathing techniques. Indeed, relaxation and the breath go hand in hand, central to mindful practices stretching back thousands of years.
Calm can be derived through the intense psychological pull of music. Never has music been so prevalent in our lives, creating great levels of emotive recall and connection going back as far as the womb.
However, in our musically saturated world the barriers to musical participation remain paradoxically high for most people.
Singing is simple and participatory in the most basic way, a musical access point that reconnects us with a basic social driver that has been linked all the way back to our cave dwelling days.
Singing is argued (in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) to be evolutionary reward for coming together cooperatively, instead of hiding alone.
What does this all mean?
Along with a profound sense of joie de vivre, singing presents numerous wider health benefits more extensive than some of the most widely recognised wellness practices, such as yoga, according to recent research.
The cumulative effect means that singing hugely reduces our stress levels, and, according to a joint study by Yale and Harvard from 2008, even increases our life expectancy.
It is worth remembering however that the key to singing is just to get involved; you don’t need to be a professional singer, or even to be singing in the right key for the benefits to be felt. The key is that you just do it!
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