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Singing for World Mental Health Day - 10th October 2017
To raise the profile of World Mental Health Day Cymaz Music is providing a pop up choir workshop at Treviglas School in Newquay on Tuesday 10th October 2017. It is becoming increasingly acknowledged that singing can promote health and well-being and many studies have been carried out which evidence the impact on mental health. Here is an article written by Emily as a summary of her recent postgraduate research into singing for health and well-being.
Singing can help boost our Mental Health and Well-being.
A recent census of choirs in the UK, ‘Voices Now’ believes that there are more than 400,000 choirs with more than 2m people singing regularly (Edwards and Swann, 2017). The report suggests that this is down to the growing number of community, non-auditioned choirs. In the report ‘Voices Now’ draws on a range of literature which all echo and support the idea that singing, particularly in a group, can promote feelings of well-being and even decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety (Clift et al, 2008 and Clift et al, 2011).
An interesting finding is the role of singing and voice work in the production of Nitric Oxide. This is instrumental in boosting our immune system, cardiovascular and respiratory systems. It aids the widening of blood vessels which increases blood flow and decreases blood pressure (Lundberg and Weitzberg, 2002). A commonly cited response to singing is the release of endorphins (Smith et al, 2010). A neurotransmitter produced in the pituitary gland and hypothalamus, this is an opiate-like chemical which produces feelings of euphoria and is helpful in the management of pain (Goldman, 2017). In a study which used chanting, it was found that levels of melatonin increased as a result. Melatonin is the neurotransmitter responsible for our biological entrainment, ie body clock and our internal rhythms. It is also known to support a healthy immune system (Singh, 1997).
Singing can have significant physiological and neurological effects, reducing feelings of stress, perceived pain and even slowing heart rates and improving blood flow and blood pressure. Singing is now being more widely supported and adopted in medical settings, where it is recognised as an effective part of a holistic and complementary treatment for certain conditions (Clark and Harding, 2012).
The release of oxytocin, the ‘happy or love hormone’ is commonly cited as an outcome when we sing (Seltzer et al, 2010). This is associated with bonding and relationships with others. In early humans rhythmic vocal activity was believed to be used as a survival technique, bonding a group together so they can then take part in activities such as group hunting; much more effective than hunting alone (Williams, 2015).
In their article ‘The Neurochemistry of Singing’ Mona Lisa Chanda and Daniel Levitin present their view that group singing promotes feelings of trust and bonding (Chandra & Levitin, 2013). A study in Sweden supported the notion of synchronisation maintaining that the act of singing in a group promotes this response, which they believe contributes to a healthy heart (Vickhoff et al, 2013). A study of the effects on mental health and quality of life concluded that after just three months, anxiety levels were significantly reduced and quality of life (using NICE guidelines) was improved (Clift et al, 2015).
The Vagus Nerve, often referred to as the pathway between the body and mind, is key in regulating our nervous system, receiving sensory information to the brain and can be responsible for levels of depression (Howland R, 2014). Branches of the vagus nerve are woven through the anatomy of the larynx which means that singing, amongst many of its other benefits, can help to stimulate the vegus nerve, supporting the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing stress hormones and inducing a calming effect. Studies into vagus nerve stimulation have shown that depression levels can be decreased. When you consider how the voice is directly affected by emotion, the term ‘lump in my throat’ makes sense, as does the wobble that can come when we are nervous or upset. The intrinsic link between the voice and our emotions is largely down to the vagus nerve.
Alfred Tomatis dedicated his life’s work to the use of sound, music and voice to foster a healing response in a range of conditions. He discovered the power of Gregorian Chanting when he visited Benedictine Monks. Their new Abbott had removed Chanting from the daily practice and the Monks found that they became increasingly lethargic. Tomatis reinstated Chanting and their energy levels and mood almost immediately improved (cited in Doidge, 2016). Tomatis also believed in the power of the Mothers voice, using recordings of their voices in his treatment programmes. As the first voice we hear (whilst in the womb), it is the one which gives most comfort and emotional response. When a Mother sings or hums to their infant it is likely to be much more effective in producing a soothing response than if another person does the same, even a family member (Abrams et al, 2016). It is not surprising that in many languages the word for Mother begins with an ‘m’, rather like a soothing hum (Goldman, 2017).
It is now widely accepted that our emotional and mental states are directly linked to our immune and cardiovascular systems and that they influence our overall health and progression of disease (Bourguignon C et al, 2010 and Cohen et al, 2015). The understanding of Psychoneuroimmunology is growing as we become more knowledgeable about the brain, neuroscience and the power of intention, or ‘mind over matter’. Numerous studies into placebos have found that in many cases, the belief that you will get better results in improvements in physical and psychological health. (Lipton, 2005)
In Medieval England, Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546) wrote ‘The Castell of Health’ in which he makes the case for singing or ‘vociferation’ for health, maintaining that it ‘should be done by those who wish to remain long in health.’ In Eastern practice, the use of Mantras and Chanting has been understood to improve health, well-being and mental states for thousands of years and the practice continues across the world today (Goldman, 2017). Studies into the physical and psychological benefits of Singing suggest that there is potential to work alongside Allopathic healthcare in the pursuit for improved health and well-being. Alongside other arts, singing is a possible health intervention in the recently published Government All Party Parliamentary report into Arts for Health recognising the potential role that the arts can play in health and well-being as well as reducing financial strains on the NHS and healthcare (McGlynn, 2017).
The most exciting prospect is that all approaches and traditions lead back to one thing; that singing is good for your health and well-being. Whether it is the fun of a community choir, humming to steady your nerves before an exam, singing lullabies to a newborn baby or chanting in a Yoga class, the versatility and power of the voice is vast. Breaking down barriers between cultures and communities, joining together in Peace songs, singing a hymn at a graveside and singing at the top of your lungs to a favourite tune on the dancefloor are moments which have probably touched us all in one way or another. The human voice has the ability to elicit cognitive arousal more than any other form of music (Bachorik at al, 2013).
 NICE is the National Institute for Clinical Excellence Guidelines.
 Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the human body (Irwin and Vedhara, 2005)
 Allopathic Medicine is a system in which medical doctors and other healthcare professionals (such as nurses, pharmacists, and therapists) treat symptoms and diseases using drugs, radiation, or surgery. Also called biomedicine, conventional medicine, mainstream medicine, orthodox medicine, and Western medicine. (www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms)