Music Therapy Can Be a Vital Component of Eating Disorder Treatment

Music Therapy Can Be a Vital Component of Eating Disorder Treatment

By Timberline Knolls Staff

The thought of using music to help with behavioral health concerns can be traced back to the writings of Aristotle and Plato, but it became popularized in the 20th century after World War II.

As musicians went to veteran’s hospitals around the country to play for those who were struggling with symptoms of trauma from the war, the armed forces officially recognized music as a way to help begin to heal both physically and mentally.

Physicians noticed that the veterans who were present for those sessions were leaving the hospital sooner, and modern music therapy, in a way, was born.

Shortly thereafter, the National Association for Music Therapy (NAMT) was founded. It merged, along with the American Association for Music Therapy, into the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) in 1998, uniting a profession that now helps individuals in a variety of therapeutic spaces.

One of those is eating disorder treatment. Participating in music therapy has shown to help people who are struggling with mental health disorders improve their quality of life, build social skills, and nurture relationships.

Music therapy helps to promote self-determination and collaboration in patients who are experiencing symptoms of behavioral health concerns by focusing on their strengths. As it relates to eating disorders specifically, it can offer motivation for recovery, distraction from negative thoughts and feelings, and a sense of autonomy and creative expression.

One researcher at Florida State University found six studies conducted in the 21st century that examined the specific effects of music therapy as a supplemental therapy for eating disorder treatment. The author found four primary goals of treatment:

  • Increase autonomy/self-confidence
  • Increase emotion regulation
  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Increase motivation for treatment

Some studies of the benefits of music therapy in eating disorder treatment have shown that participants have an increase in mental engagement and the ability to distance themselves from life’s problems. One particularly interesting study from 2015 looked at whether music therapy could decrease post meal-related anxiety in patients who have anorexia nervosa in an inpatient or residential setting.

Other research showed that post meal support therapy was beneficial for inpatient eating disorder treatment programs, but this study found that those who participated in the music therapy group — compared with standard post meal therapy — had a more significant decrease in anxiety levels after mealtime.

Music therapy isn’t just about listening to music. Many music therapists incorporate songwriting, playing instruments, lyric analysis, and music-assisted relaxation into their programming.

Each has different benefits. Songwriting gives patients a chance to express themselves in a judgment-free environment and can lead to conversations that allow for connection and understanding. Playing instruments can tie into emotion regulation (determining which sounds might best represent happiness, sadness, or loneliness, for instance). Lyric analysis can be built around different themes, such as empowerment or emptiness. And music-assisted relaxation can involve building playlists to help participants through challenging events, such as shopping or mealtimes.

As with any form of therapeutic intervention, music therapy may be more effective in certain contexts — and for certain patients — than in others.

The overarching goal in music therapy is to provide a path to healing. There is much research still to be conducted on the large-scale benefits of music therapy for eating disorders, but what we know so far is that emotional healing can be a key catalyst in physical healing. Music therapy can serve as a basis for patients to address body image, self-esteem, anxiety, and other key areas that often undermine eating disorder recovery.