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I'm stressed. Are you stressed? Of course you are. It's 2020. From a pandemic that's still affecting every part of our lives to a presidential election that brought our democracy — and my own personal sanity — to the brink, this year has been ridiculously taxing.
As parents, we're dealing with a lot right now, but it's also a challenging time for kids. Learning from home. Reduced time with friends. Dealing with shortened or canceled athletic seasons. When I look at the effects on my own children, 12-year-old Felix and 10-year-old Leo, I'm grateful they're healthy and still showing so much strength and positivity. And yet, as I watch them get on each other's nerves more often and battle a growing sense of isolation, I have no doubt that 2020 has taken some of the fun out of being a kid.
The good news is that no matter how old we are, playing the right music at the right time is a simple, effective way to turn down the stress and turn up the joy.
There's scientific data to support that. Licensed music therapist Jen DeBedout, owner of Music Blooms Music Therapy in Burlington, explained that listening to music releases positive endorphins in the body that make us feel good. Research has also found that brain activity actually shifts when we listen to music. While mellow, calming sounds can have soothing effects on the brain, upbeat music quickens our heartbeat and gives us energy. Small wonder that music is so often used to get us through tough workouts and was always a locker room staple when I helped coach my son Felix's hockey team. "Music calms me down and makes me more focused on achieving my goals," he told me.
Music also affects our limbic system, the part of our brains that deals with emotions and memory, said DeBedout. That means it's a perfect medium for delivering what our bodies need, whether we're trying to calm down or get a boost. While it's helpful to remember that music therapy is a profession and should be delivered by a trained therapist — which requires more than 1,000 hours of training in a clinical setting — families can use music to promote wellness in a multitude of ways.
What do you do when things are feeling heavy in your household? DeBedout recommends putting on an infectious tune like Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling!" and watching moods improve almost instantly. Why? Our bodies almost can't help but respond in a positive way to upbeat music. In her work with kids, DeBedout relies on movement to help kids manage stress and regulate their bodies. If they're hanging onto extra worries, dancing and moving not only help alleviate them but also add a sense of body awareness. Similarly, for kids feeling cooped up at home or frustrated by a lack of control, banging away at drums or percussion instruments provides an almost instant emotional release while also promoting healthy brain function.
"Music can give a sense of control when things are feeling out of control," DeBedout says.
Families can also find joy and stress relief by making music together. Don't worry about how it sounds. Sing together, clap, dance, drum — it's all good. Next time a reflective family meeting doesn't seem to be doing the trick, try music instead. Share favorite songs with each other. Have a family sing-along or a lip-sync contest. If there are instruments in your house, learn a song to play together as a way to connect. And, if your kids have a digital device, help them build playlists of go-to favorites.
Music is also great for relaxation and sleep and can be a positive tool for kids who are just beginning to learn how to manage their emotions and overall well-being. Both of my children have occasional struggles with sleep, and I know they're not alone. Soothing music affects our autonomic nervous system and promotes controlled breathing, a lower heart rate and even reduced blood pressure, which can lead to better, more sustained sleep.
The year 2020 is drawing to an end, but elevated stress levels likely won't disappear in the new year. Music is one simple tool we can use to brighten our spirits as we settle into the long Vermont winter.
5 Songs for Mood-Boosting:
- "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves
- "Shout!" by The Isley Brothers
- "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" by Whitney Houston
- "I Got You (I Feel Good)" by James Brown
- "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars
5 Albums for De-Stressing:
- Ambient 1: Music for Airports by Brian Eno
- The Melody at Night, With You by Keith Jarrett
- re:member by Ólafur Arnalds
- Debussy for Daydreaming by Claude Debussy
- Juno by Lyle Brewer