By Bernadette Wycks
The first time I felt the full body reverberations of many crystal bowls toning in harmony I had just finished walking a candle-lit labyrinth for the 2003 winter solstice community arts celebration. I laid down on the gym floor in front of the singing bowls and felt the sound move through me, softening me. That experience of profound physical and mental relaxation has stayed with me. I now try to facilitate a similar experience ― that unique feeling of restfulness, vulnerability, and safety in a group ― in my work life.
I looked to bring my sound therapy training to the community where I work: Creative Works Studio (CWS). The CWS is a community arts-based studio for people living with mental health and/or addiction concerns. It was founded 22 years ago on the principles of occupational therapy and is now operated by Good Shepherd Non-Profit Homes Inc. I conducted community sound therapy sessions called “sound baths,” in reference to the idea of sound washing over the participant, for clients and Good Shepherd staff. Over 70 people have participated and there are requests for sound baths at other Good Shepherd locations.
I wanted to explore whether my community and I could co-create a similar feeling to my long-ago experience of group meditation through sound. The potential of creating art, music, sound, and meditative experiences together could help clients and staff feel a deep sense of belonging. With relaxation could come healing on individual and communal levels.
While I was familiar with the body of research on the impacts of meditation and visual arts on psychosocial health, I was not as knowledgeable about sound therapy as a tool for self-soothing. What might be the effect of sound therapy on clients and the overworked staff and managers? Could the potential self-care effects of sound therapy allow staff to better help their clients?
The research on sound therapy and mental health is in its infancy. Sound therapy differs from music therapy in that there is no specific structure to the sounds made. Music therapy usually involves clients actively “creating, singing, moving to, and/or listening to music” to address their “physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs,” as facilitated by a music therapist (1). In sound therapy, instruments including Tibetan and crystal singing bowls, drums, shakers, rain sticks, chimes, and gongs are used. The voice is also used, such as singing a single note or chanting mantras (2). Sound therapy is a passive exercise, whereas clients are actively engaged during music therapy; however, there are some similarities.
In sound, music, and meditation therapies, certain centres in the left brain are stimulated that can elicit feelings of peace, serenity, and optimism (3). When listening to classical music after doing a stressful activity, people’s heart rates dropped, and their rest and relaxation response improved (4). A recent study found that after sound baths and meditation, participants experienced significantly less tension and anxiety, while feelings of spiritual well-being increased (5). These results “provide promise, for a form of stress reduction that does not require the individual to learn a disciplined form of meditation.” (5)
Sound and Resonance
We enjoy orchestral music when the sound vibrations produced by the instruments are in resonance: in tune and being played well. However, when an instrument is out of tune or played badly, the instruments are in dissonance and the whole is negatively affected. Similarly, the constituent parts of the physical body are like the different instruments of the orchestra: the molecules of each organ, bone, and muscle move and vibrate cohesively. When physically and mentally healthy, our organs, bones, and muscles move in resonance. However, when these vibrations are in dissonance, our bodies are unbalanced or unhealthy (6).
Like physical health concerns, poor mental health can be understood as dissonance within the bodily systems. According to noted addictions and mental health advocate Dr. Gabor Maté, the body often learns dissonant ways of coping, possibly due to factors including childhood trauma (7). One component of trauma is the disconnection from our body and emotions:
“It’s not an automatic outcome of living in the world that we should become disconnected. It’s a product of a certain way of life and a certain way of parenting and certain childhood experiences, where it becomes too painful to stay connected so disconnection becomes a defense.” (7)
I wondered if these traumatic experiences could be stored in the body as dissonant vibrations, contributing to mental health concerns. Perhaps using sound to create a harmonic environment could help transition these stored, disconnected memories to a state of relaxation and healing. I decided to focus on these dissonant factors through the CWS sound therapy sessions.
Effects on Clients
In sound therapy training, we learn that our state of mind has an impact on the session. For the first CWS sound therapy session, I felt a bit nervous but mostly tired and overworked. Participants sat in chairs in a circle while I sat on the floor playing the instruments. Beginning with a short guided meditation to help me relax as a facilitator, I hoped it would also ease the participants into the experience. I then transitioned into the sounds of breath and sighs.
I chose instruments that would further ease the state of relaxation: crystal and metal singing bowls and chimes for harmonic resonance, a drum for a bass foundation, a rain stick for atmosphere, and my voice as an integrative element. First, the rain stick echoed the sound of water running through the studio pipes. I continued with the chimes, then started playing the bowls before combining heartbeat drumming. As the session ended I felt happy and thankful, relaxed and optimistic.
During the second sound therapy session most of the clients kept their eyes closed during the sound bath and appeared to relax their shoulders. I went through a similar sound itinerary as during the first sound therapy session. Afterwards, I offered the group a simple pastel drawing activity to process and anchor the experience to memory. Following the session, participants felt that it was easier to access the relaxation of the meditative state through a sound bath instead of attempting a mindfulness meditation session without sound therapy.
Effects on Staff
I also facilitated sound therapy sessions for Good Shepherd staff. By providing a space for caregivers to relax, I thought those benefits could translate to providing greater care for clients. There is evidence to support this idea: surgeons performed a stressful nonsurgical task faster and more accurately when listening to self-selected music, and long-term care workers experienced less burnout and better mood having participated in group music therapy (8).
The two staff sound therapy sessions were attended by five and six participants respectively. During the first session, a new director under a lot of stress eventually assumed the fetal position. One manager fell asleep right away. He later said it was very calm and relaxing; he had an out-of-body experience. Another overworked manager who had not taken time for herself in a long while shared that it felt good to relax for an hour; she felt like I was singing lullabies. In the second sound therapy session, the six participants took longer to relax and feel comfortable on the floor. One person arrived late, but once he settled into the experience he stopped moving and fell asleep. Another participant, who had earlier been in discussions with a lawyer, shared that she was able to release her tension and focus on her breathing.
What Sound Therapy Has Shown Me
Based on these facilitated sessions, I observed that sound therapy helped most clients experience a state of relaxation and an alleviation of worrying thoughts. It appeared to be least helpful for clients who were experiencing extreme anxiety or actively using substances. These clients disclosed they found it hard to disengage from the negative loop of thoughts. These clients typically find meditation without sound even more difficult.
With some adaptation, sound therapy has the potential to have a positive effect on sensitive clients. For example, exposure to soft tones along with slow, focused, rhythmic breathing on a regular basis over a longer period could help these clients gradually feel safer in their bodies. One such experience was with a client who was initially very shy and who sat apart from the group. Eventually she became comfortable with sound therapy, even playing one small bowl herself for self-soothing. From my small sample of doing sound therapy with staff, I also found that both front line workers and administrative directors were burned out and needed to take time to relax and recharge.
Sound therapy can help people reconnect and experience a state of resonance, allowing them to work through varying degrees of disconnection or trauma and to regain a state of connected flow. As I experienced many years ago in a candlelit community centre gym, sound baths and the playing of bowls can elicit a response that connects body and mind: breathing slows, cells align, and thoughts disappear. Sound therapy may help us access a state of meditation and, hopefully, healing.
To refer to this article, it can be cited as:
Wycks B. Sound therapy and mental health: Using sound as a self-soothing tool at Creative Works Studio. rehabINK. 2019;7. Available from: https://rehabinkmag.com
Featured illustration by Janell Lin for rehabINK.
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- Kemper KJ, Donhauer S. Music as Therapy. Southern Medical Journal. 2005;98(3):282–288.