Author: Dilan Desir
From: Ellenton, Florida, USA
[The contents of this blog may be triggering to particular audiences]
Music is a fundamental part of human life, evolution, and the history of the world, from the sounds of nature that filled the Earth many billions of years ago to the noises early humans used to communicate to the complex technological productions of today. There is simply no denying that music is an integral component of what makes humans—well—human. Over time, human society has found many ways to harness the potential of music: for entertainment, weddings, religious celebrations, funerals, etc. It is in this pursuit to better understand the capabilities of music that scientists are now studying the usage of music as therapy for victims of sexual abuse and assault. Let’s learn a little more about the medicine that lies behind every music note, key, and instrument!
What is Sexual Trauma?
Donna Grethen / Op-Art
Sexual trauma is a general term used to denote “any sexual act that is imposed on another person without their consent”. The wording here may come across as vague to some individuals, however, at its core sexual trauma can be identified as anything that is done without consent or something that is done against the will of another. This does not just mean the act of sex itself but can include unwanted sexual advances (e.g. catcalling), physical contact, etc. Sexual trauma is, simply put, traumatic, and can impact victims long after the actual event happened.
Neurological Effects of Sexual Trauma
The most obvious (prevalent) impacts of sexual trauma on the long term neurological shifts include feelings of fear (62% women, 18% men), concerns for safety (57% women, 17% men), and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD; 52% women, 17% men). These feelings may often be observed in those who have not, and may never, experience sexual trauma in their lives. However, having these feelings over extended periods of time, as many survivors often do, has very serious physiological consequences: including “gastrointestinal symptoms (eg, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea), cardiopulmonary and neurologic symptoms (eg, shortness of breath, arrhythmias, chest pain, asthma, hyperventilation, numbness, weakness, insomnia, fatigue), genital and reproductive symptoms (eg, vaginal bleeding or infection, genital irritation, pelvic pain, urinary tract infections, painful intercourse, and lack of sexual pleasure), PTSD, and depression”. These symptoms and conditions are often more severe in children and adolescents, who are often survivors as well.
So Where Does Music Come Into This?
While it is not uncommon to see someone jamming to their favorite song and having the lyrics committed to memory, it is less common for people to truly understand what happens when you listen to music! Music is not only enjoyed through a cognitive response but also through a complex, multi-step physiological process. Studies have shown that “our brains is the triggering of pleasure centers that release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy”. This same study found that music provides long-term health benefits. By listening to music and using music therapy, neuroscientists and clinical psychologists hope that the increased release of dopamine will reduce the activity of the amygdala of survivors of sexual trauma and abuse. The amygdala is an important part of the brain that is responsible for activating our body’s “fight-or-flight” response. However, music may have the potential to put the amygdala on pause and, ideally, lead to reduced levels of anxiety, depression, and all other related consequences.
It becomes very apparent that music does indeed matter to neuroscience, and it has the potential to serve as a powerful tool for victims of sexual trauma. This music therapy is especially applicable in cases involving children and young adolescents who oftentimes do not have the developed communicative abilities to benefit as much from traditional therapy sessions. The future of music in science is delicate and new but is exciting for researchers around the world because it is one step in the right direction toward making the recovery process for those affected by it as efficient and empathetic as possible.
Author: Dilan Desir
“After an Assault.” The Sexual Trauma & Abuse Care Center, 13 Jan. 2021, stacarecenter.org/what-is-sexual-trauma-abuse.
Cuevas, Kristen M., et al. “Neurobiology of Sexual Assault and Osteopathic Considerations for Trauma-Informed Care and Practice.” The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, American Osteopathic Association, 1 Feb. 2018, jaoa.org/article.aspx?articleid=2666210.
“How Does Music Affect Your Brain?: UAGC: University of Arizona Global Campus.” UAGC, 7 June 2017, www.uagc.edu/blog/how-does-music-affect-your-brain#:~:text=One of the first things,with an early dopamine rush.