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Music and the Arts in Recovery

Music and the Arts in Recovery

There are few things sadder than walking into a rehab and the scanning sprawled bodies with “that look.” “That look” is a combination of ennui, sadness, guilt, helplessness, and hopelessness caused by the fact that patients are generally trying to recover from the most disastrous years, months or days of their lives. And as if life wasn’t bad enough in the last days of their ripping and running, now they’re stuck in a place filled with some of the unhappiest people they’ve ever met. 


It doesn’t have to be that way.


My mentor Dr. Lee Bloom used to say to clients, “Hey, let’s have some fun while we’re here! You’re in the most beautiful place in the country, you’re clean and sober, and you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.” That has been my basic philosophy for the thirteen years I’ve been in this field. If you can’t be happy in recovery, then why the hell did you stop? To be unhappy in a new place?



The Cure


Anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure, is an almost inevitable consequence of stopping all your drug use at once, and moping around with a bunch of other anhedonics doesn’t make it any better. There are scientific explanations for this phenomenon, including reduced dopamine, endorphins, and alterations in Serotonin levels. 
The antidote to anhedonia, then, lies at least partially in stimulating dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, which reduce the intensity of both physical and mental pain. Besides ameliorating the experience of pain, these neurotransmitters affect other psychological activities, including euphoric feelings, appetite, and the release of sex hormones.


Two very good ways to overcome anhedonia are music therapy and the arts, which have been integral parts of every program I’ve ever been associated with. We all know and instinctively understand that artistic activities can be extremely soothing, and drug addicts are notoriously bad at self-soothing.


Extended, continuous immersion in focused activities contribute to a sense of well-being that may represent increased production and release of endorphins, neurotransmitters found in the brain that have pain-relieving and soothing properties similar to opiates.


But this isn’t an article about neurotransmitters. It’s about music, art, laughter, joy, and learning to love life without drugs and alcohol.


The Value of Music and the Arts


There are many nonpharmacologic ways to deal with the inevitable anhedonia associated with early recovery—exercise, meditation, camaraderie, mindfulness, yoga, and acupuncture, to name a few—but it is my belief that music and the arts are two of the best. They should be essential components of every drug and alcohol treatment program.
Although we’re not quite sure where they came from and what their true purpose is in human survival, music and the arts have been a part of the human experience for a long time. A bone flute that could probably play a modern melody was unearthed from a site in France dating back at least thirty-two thousand years (“Development of Flutes,” 2015).


I try to impress upon my clients is that music and the arts are truly mind-altering “substances” that not only offer diversion in our darkest hours, they also have the power to literally change our mood and attitude, in the same way that many of us used drugs and alcohol.


For me, listening to a silly chestnut of a song like “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies always makes me smile and brightens my mood. On the other hand, the song “Creep” by Radiohead makes me feel, well . . . creepy, while at the same time morphing my mood into something dark and twisted, which can be a good thing when it serves as a reminder of those days when I felt unworthy and less than. 


Munch’s The Scream is a painting often brought up in art therapy classes, because it has the power to make us feel those wretched moments when all we could do was cry out in our hopeless, twisted despair.


Ryan Hampton, a former client who is now in recovery at a rehab near Los Angeles, says, “Music and the arts are my medicine. They are the best replacement therapy out there.”


It rankles me no end when I see counselors or administrators take away clients’ musical instruments, secular books, digital music players, and crafts materials, hand them a Big Book and program booklets, and proclaim, “This is all you’ll need while you’re here. That other stuff is what got you here in the first place.”


That is so wrong! Facilities that embrace this philosophy are, thankfully, on the decline, principally because a good music and arts therapy program can have countless benefits, as listed below:


  • It’s been conclusively established that the pleasurable experience of listening to music or engaging in artistic endeavors releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with other rewards like sex, drugs, and food. Even the anticipation of pleasurable music induces dopamine release (McGill University, 2011). 
  • When used effectively, music and the arts can lower stress levels (Novotney, 2013). The soothing power of music is well-established. 
  • Music and the arts actually lower and raise blood pressure! In addition, it can help protect the heart from heart disease (Donnelly, 2015).
  • Music and the arts help improve communication abilities for people with autism. “Our current results provide intriguing preliminary evidence for a possible molecular link between dopamine DRD4 receptor, music, the arts, and autism,” concludes a study published in the journal Neuroendocrinology Letters (Emanuele et al., 2010).  
  • In the same way that music helps with depression, music and the arts can help people deal better with anxiety.
  • Icons and paintings are almost universal adjuncts to meditation, which reduces stress and increases mindfulness. They are used in almost all religions and are indispensable components of most religious and spiritual ceremonies.
  • Music and the arts can give the body’s immune system a boost (Novotney, 2013). They therefore promote healing and help the body ward off illness.
  • Music and other arts can help people cope better with the pain of detox and legitimate chronic pain. Researchers found that people who listened to excerpts of music judged by most to be pleasant reported less pain than those who listened to “unpleasant” music (Bates, 2013). The more pleasing the listeners found the music to be, the less pain they felt. Other studies suggest that music can interfere with pain signals at the level of the spinal cord—this is before they even reach the brain (Bates, 2013). 
  • Music and the arts reduce feelings of loneliness. Elizabeth Singer, a client at a California rehab in 2014 says, “I was moved by your music therapy class. I was able to inspire and express myself with motivational music of my choice. It made me feel that I was not alone, that life was worth living again.”
  • Music is one of the last vestiges of a link to the “real world” in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, including drug psychosis (Novotney, 2013).


The Arts Bring Connection


We’re not quite sure where it comes from, but “that thing” that uses rhythm, percussion, and wide ranges of pitch, melody, and harmony—that is, music—is a part of every culture. 


And the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, literature, and dance, are archetypal across almost all cultures too.


Some scientists conclude that music and art’s influence may be a random event, arising from its ability to “liberate” brain systems built for other purposes such as speech, feelings, and muscle movement. Music and art seem to offer an extraordinary system of communication rooted more in feeling rather than in content.


It is clear that music and the arts are much more than pleasantly distracting, useless human activities. As advances in neurology and brain scans develop, we will probably learn as much about the physics and physiology of music and the arts in the next twenty years as we have learned previously in all of recorded history.   


New scientific evidence shows that music and art bring out predictable responses across cultures and among people of widely varying musical or cognitive abilities. Music and art unfailingly convey certain emotions. What we feel when we hear a piece of music or look at a Picasso painting is probably close to what others from other cultures are experiencing.


The arts in general—body art, cinema, dance, digital art, drawing, engraving, opera, painting, photography, poetry, pottery, sculpture, singing, theatre, reading, writing, and even graffiti—have mysterious roots. Why did the first Māori chief carve the images into his skin, later seen by seen by Captain Cook and his crew? Why did the first Paleolithic cavewoman decide to use charcoal to draw an image of her daughter on a cave wall? Why did the first African mother sing to her child fifty thousand years ago?


There is evidence that suggests that baboons are able to tell which pictures show similar items, like triangles or dots, and which show different ones. This is the definition of a concept, and a concept is integral to the artistic process. 


So making art and music are primitive things, and like drug addiction they reside in parts of the brain that we just don’t know a lot about. Perhaps that’s why music and the arts are such effective, indispensable treatments for addicts in early recovery. They “exercise” the part of the brain that drugs and alcohol have rendered flabby and useless. 
This is why they should be integral parts of all drug and alcohol programs. Adding music and art therapy to your program is money well spent, and will guarantee that people will speak well of your program when they leave.






Bates, M. (2013). A dose of music for pain relief. Retrieved from http://www.brainfacts.org/sensing-thinking-behaving/senses-and-perception/articles/2013/a-dose-of-music-for-pain-relief/
“The development of flutes in Europe and Asia.” (2015). Retrieved from http://www.flutopedia.com/dev_flutes_euroasia.htm
Donnelly, L. (2015). Verdi, Beethoven, and Puccini could help beat heart disease. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/11660663/classical-music-blood-pressure-heart-disease.html
Emanuele, E., Boso, M., Cassola, F., Broglia, D., Bonoldi, I., Mancini, L., . . . Politi, P. (2010). Increased dopamine DRD4 receptor mRNA expression in lymphocytes of musicians and artistic individuals: Bridging the music-autism connection. Neuroendocrinology Letters, 31(1), 122–5
McGill University. (2011). Musical chills: Why they give us thrills. Science Daily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110112111117.htm
Novotney, A. (2013). Music as medicine. Monitor on Psychology, 44(10), 46.