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Music Therapy and the Vet Experience

November 7, 2017
“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” Maya Angelou
I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” ―Tom Waits

All of us who have served our country grew up through that experience. During our service, we saw things, learned things, did things that changed who we became as people, impacted our relationships, our mannerisms, our ways of being. We found parts of ourselves we didn’t know were there, lost things we considered important.

But how to talk about that isn’t something they cover in bootcamp or during reentry. Too often, veterans come home lacking a way to explain what we’ve seen, done, been a part of, felt, or become. Processing our experiences is too often lonely. It doesn’t fit in with how we’re trained to think. For some of us, music is an answer.

Labels: Trauma and PTSD

Not all veterans initially want to accept that common experiences we share with our comrades and friends need to be labeled as a psychological condition. Especially if we served multiple tours in Afghanistan or Iraq, our reactions to transitioning in and out of combat might not feel like a “disorder.” After all, who wouldn’t have difficulty processing an experience where you transition in and out of war and a society at home, never sure when the transitions will be over.

But “trauma” isn’t a dirty word, and it doesn’t mean something is wrong with your character. In medicine, trauma is defined as a severe injury that happens suddenly. In the history of psychology, trauma actually means a rupture in experience. It refers to a moment when something happens that is so out of sync with your normal life you can’t incorporate it into the narrative of your experience (1). This includes things like leaving for a tour that is completely different from your everyday life, and then coming home to a world that kept moving without you.

Putting an experience like that into words is hard, especially since so many veterans have experienced something traumatic. That’s why PTSD is so commonly diagnosed among returning veterans (2). For some, trauma or PTSD interferes with our relationships or our daily lives. That’s when we have to act, whether that means getting a diagnosis from a VA doctor or not. Often, it means seeking help, and that shouldn’t have any stigma. But help doesn’t look the same for everybody. In addition to other kinds of help available, music can be a way to reclaim your experiences, process them, and improve your well-being.

Music Therapy as an Option for Veterans

New research shows that whether you think of your trauma as a disorder or not, dealing with it doesn’t have to mean endless talking about exactly what happened and when. Which is good news, because we’re not all wired for that much talking. For people that are, great! For the rest of us though, it’s important to know we have other options.

Music therapy has been used with veterans for a long time. There are documented cases from World War II, and strong evidence doctors used music to help veterans returning from World War I (3). It turns out music therapy that helps with PTSD is partly an extension of how many of us already use music in our daily lives. Qualified music therapists are immensely helpful, but even having a good relationship with music as a way to cope with stress can help.

Music therapy for PTSD isn’t endlessly listening to a zen garden soundtrack you would hear in a spa, either. For example, have you ever thought of yourself as having a “theme song” (4)? One tune that when you listened to it in your car just made you feel like it perfectly represented your experiences and made you feel centered? Maybe your theme song is “The Hellion” by Judas Priest.

What if you could process your emotions by listening to a playlist that started with “The Hellion” followed by some other songs that represented a variety of other moods. What if the playlist was edited with software so that it took you through a particular series of moods in a balanced timeframe, and it only included songs you enjoy? What if you listened to that playlist every day, and maybe kept a private journal about how you felt while you did it? What if you added in playing a drum, or your guitar, or writing songs that expressed your emotions?

These are all things that music therapy can do, and it’s really effective for veterans. For example, one research study that focused on music therapy with a vet found that:

“Preference combined with specific listening sequences could assist veterans dealing with PTSD through evoking previous feelings of anxiety, stress, or depression and transitioning the experiencing of the former dreadful circumstance to a state of relaxation. This can help to revive their social engagement system in a way which is viewed as non-threatening, increasing focus and productivity, and a gradual return toward finding enjoyment from activities which were previously experienced as meaningful.” (4)

What to Do Next:

In our next piece, we’ll get further into the exact ways this works neurologically and some of the details of how you can use music therapy. For now, in the midst of all of the awkward or awesome conversations about Veteran’s Day, know this: it’s okay to feel conflicted about your service, or to have pain, or trauma, or PTSD. It’s okay not to want to talk about it. And music really can be a solution, whether you already use it that way or not.

So go make yourself a playlist that makes you feel better, or stream one. Go blast it in your car. Start thinking of a list of your favorite songs and why you like them, and what they help you feel.

If you need something a little more formal than a playlist, finding a qualified music therapy program might help, too. There’s a list of resources for vets available at http://www.operationwearehere.com/MusicTherapy.html

  1. Laplanche, J.; Pontalis, J.B. (1967). The Language of Psycho-Analysis. W. W. Norton and Company. pp. 465–9.
  2. Congress of the United States Congressional Budget Office. The Veterans Health Administration’s treatment of PTSD and traumatic brain injury among recent combat veterans. Available at: http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/02-09-PTSD.pdf
  3. American Music Therapy Association. Music therapy and military populations: A status report and recommendations on music therapy treatment, programs, research, and practice policy. Available at: http://www.musictherapy.org/assets/1/7/MusicTherapyMilitaryPops_2014.pdf
  4. Wellman and Pinkerton 2015. “The Development of a Music Therapy Protocol: A Music 4 Life® Case Report of a Veteran with PTSD” Music & Medicine Vol.. 7 issue 3, pages 34-39, available at https://mmd.iammonline.com/index.php/musmed/article/view/408/281