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Soldiers, Symphony Conductors and Self-Medication

by Bill Protzmann

soldier-ptsd

Self-medication. All too common in a negative context. Hardly ever mentioned in a positive one. No wonder, as self-medication often involves substance abuse: alcohol, drugs – both prescription and illegal.

There are other ways of self-medicating too. Extreme sports, extreme speed and mixed martial arts give you an adrenaline boost you can’t get any other way.

Or can you?

If you’ve never been in combat – and most of us never will – you will never experience the kind of brain chemistry overload that it takes to be an effective soldier or cage fighter. Preparation for and execution of an effective combat maneuver – whether on the ground, sea or air – pushes the human system to an incredible limit of endurance, physically, mentally and emotionally. Remarkably, human beings are built to do this. The combination of brain chemicals available to trained Service members is remarkable.

At a recent presentation, I spoke to a Marine F-18 pilot told me he finally got it when it came to the music his team listens to before flight. I asked him what they listen to afterwards.

Think about the music on ESPN before a game, or the music AT the game. It’s designed to pump you – and the players – up to peak performance. Just like the music those fighter pilots use. Is this self-medication?

We know that hearing music is directly related to release of brain chemicals (hormones, neurotransmitters and the like), so if you or me are self-medicating with music does that make you or me an addict?

Given the incredible sacrifices made by the folks who fight our wars, crime and fires, it’s tragic that their average lifespans are so short. It’s even more tragic that we don’t have our heroes around to honor for many many years – as parents, public servants and exemplary human beings – and that so many of them take their own lives after they leave the Service.

One ad-hoc study found that, of all the professions and occupations, symphony conductors generally have the longest life span AND continue to perform many years beyond the age where most of us will have retired from our jobs. The same study theorized that the gentle aerobics of conducting an orchestra and the classical music in which a symphony conductor is immersed combine to provide longevity. Make no mistake: it’s not life threatening (in most cases!) to conduct a symphony, but it is a HIGHLY stressful, politically demanding, intellectually challenging career which some have likened to herding cats.

To rise to the top of your profession in business, banking, technology, politics, medicine, education or the creative arts for example pretty much demands some kind of self-medication. In the music industry, we think of Kurt Cobain, any number of rappers, John Lennon, Billie Holliday – many many others – who died way too young, but who gave the world some incredible art. What part of self-medication didn’t these hugely gifted musicians understand?

Plenty of examples, both of those who survive into old age and those who don’t. Sure: plenty of career Service members who are combat Veterans live long lives, as do ex-CEOs, surgeons, teachers, artists, actors and musicians. So what’s the difference between those who live to enjoy a long life and those who don’t?

All these questions have one possible answer, but it’s a difficult one to swallow:

The music you hear matters.

Symphony conductors survive to do their jobs late into life in part because they engage in gentle, consistent movement over many years, and in part because of the kinds of music bathing them regularly. Classical music, it had been shown, provides a life-affirming combination of brain chemistry.

Rock, rap, some kinds of jazz, electronica, hip-hop, house music, the sound of a jackhammer and other similar sounds have the opposite effect. You get a GREAT adrenalin boost, but not much that contributes to longevity. Great music for pumping up for a fight; poor choice for healing.

Folks listening to classical music have been shown to need half as much pain medication, increase their level of the “healing hormone” – pituitary growth hormone, – have more restful sleep, lower their blood pressure. This ONLY from self-medicating with music.

Interested?

Here’s an idea: try it.

An example:

Some Servicemen I know practice cage fighting. Pre-fight, I’d suggest they boost adrenalin by listening to hip hop or rap, as hard and loud as they can without hurting their ear drums. Post-fight, I’d recommend they put on some Chopin, Rachmaninoff, or even the piano jazz of Brad Mehldau (Mozart might be a bit to airy-fairy, but the others have a lot more healing pathos). This will reverse the effect of the adrenalin boost and provide a wash of healing and soothing brain chemicals.

With iTunes or spotify.com it’s easy to get started with musical self-medication, and with Pandora.com it’s easier still to find the music that does it for you. I’d be the last to say that one particular song is any better than another – that’s a personal choice everyone makes based on their own preferences – but there’s enough research to generalize in an effective way about the genres of music and what they can do to the human system.

Many of you know about Guitars for Vets – is playing a guitar to relieve symptoms of combat-related post-traumatic stress “self-medicating with music?” Positive self-medication with music may be a tough term to grasp, but the Department of Veterans Affairs has concluded fieldwork for a study to be released in December 2011 demonstrating the results of the Guitars for Vets program. To quote the study’s Purpose:

“Post traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) is a common condition for persons who have served in the Armed services during combat or deployment. Treatments include medications, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other social support mechanisms.

“[The Study’s] aim in this project is to critically evaluate the effects of a novel music therapy intervention on the symptoms of PTSD.”

Results of that Study indicate that the Guitars for Vets program is effective for intervention and relief of the symptoms of combat-related post-traumatic stress. Here’s the Study link: Guitars for Vets: Evaluating Psychological Outcome of a Novel Music Therapy.

Music as medication? You decide. And choose wisely.