Benefits of Parasympathetic Activation

As pain treatment continues to become more prioritized in medical care, research into how music therapy can benefit the health of patients has increased. Research has revealed that sound activation of the parasympathetic nervous system is beneficial to both mental and physical health. The parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system interact with each other, so triggering just the parasympathetic nervous system is specific. Current evidence suggests that some already widely used therapies are beneficial through their impact on the parasympathetic nervous system.

All kinds of sounds can impact your mood. Just like too much noise can put you in a bad mood, or stress you out, the right kind of noise and sound can put you in a good mood and have calming effects. Some research points specifically to light jazz and classical music, Native American, Celtic, and Indian stringed-instruments, drums, flutes, rain, wind, and other nature sounds as being particularly effective.

Parasympathetic activation has been shown to greatly reduce anxiety. In one study, university students were told to perform various stressful tasks. An experimental group, which listened to classical music for twenty minutes afterwards, was shown to have significant stress reduction as compared to a control group which didn’t listen to any music. Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system can also help to bring an anxious individual out of fight or flight mode by ‘resetting’ the nervous system. Breathing slowly, consistently, and evenly signals to the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body down.

Music therapy is also effective as an intervention in treating anxiety, especially when guided. Research suggests that helpful guidance when listening to music with the goal of activating your parasympathetic could be actively refocusing your attention on the sound, letting your breathing be guided by the music, or choosing imagery to picture that goes along with the sounds. The same study determined that music therapy helped reduce anxiety surrounding going to the dentist, and another determined that music therapy is both a cost-effective and pragmatic way to reduce dental anxiety, and encourage patients to go to the dentist who otherwise may not.

Parasympathetic activation has been shown to be beneficial in a hospital setting as well. In a study concerning patients recovering from spine surgery, music therapy when coupled with conventional medical care reduced pain in patients significantly more than conventional medical care on its own. In a similar study, patients who received relaxation therapy after joint replacement surgery reported lower pain levels after intervention, and the therapy made a difference in systolic blood pressure as well. The patients who received relaxation therapy also reported that it reduced stress and promoted sleep.

Musical intervention can also act as a stimulus to the cardiac autonomic nervous system, which increases parasympathetic activity, and heart rate variability. Parasympathetic stimulation is shown to have benefits to heart health specifically. In one study, hypertension patients listened to Indian music to see if it relaxed them or helped normalize blood pressure. The study concluded that if paired with conventional lifestyle modifications, music therapy plays a supplementary role in normalizing blood pressure. Music therapy has also shown an ability to decrease congestive heart failure by reducing plasma cytokine and catecholamine levels. The same study reaffirmed that it also enhanced parasympathetic activities.

Music therapy is inexpensive, easy to apply, and has no negative effects. For these reasons, it can serve as a complementary method to treat pain and pre-surgery stress. It also can be used on a day-to-day basis to manage the anxiety of the modern world.