The Healing Magic of Holiday Music

It’s a phenomenon as predictable as cold winter weather. With the passing of Thanksgiving, thus begins the incessant barrage of popular holiday songs. From Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas (is You),” the seasonal music is everywhere, even spurring more than one local radio station to air it around the clock. This all begs one simple question: Why?

It turns out that any music can provide a variety of physiological and psychological benefits that create a healthy spirit, mind and body. But holiday tunes are especially effective at brightening your mood, making it truly seem like the most wonderful time of the year. So set up that streaming playlist or dig out your favorite vinyl. Here are a few ways listing to holiday music can make you healthier:

Improve your mood

According to the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI), research shows the benefits of music therapy for various mental health conditions, including depression, trauma, and schizophrenia. Because of its rhythmic and repetitive aspects, music engages the neocortex of our brain, which relaxes us and reduces impulsivity. As a result, it helps us process emotions, calm anxiety and soothe grief.

There are other reasons why hearing a favorite old song brightens your spirits. The nostalgia you feel listening to your favorite Nat King Cole Christmas tune triggers a release of dopamine and serotonin, which creates a pleasant neurological effect in your brain’s circuitry.

Boost your memory

Music’s strong tie to nostalgia creates other surprising benefits for your memory. Ever notice how hearing a song from long ago takes you back in time? If you have fond childhood memories of the holiday season, listening to certain Christmas songs can create warm, fuzzy emotions that aid in recalling other details. In a 1999 study, researchers examined people’s ability to recall memories and autobiographical details after hearing a clip from a song. Even more interesting is the fact that popular songs released when a participant was 10–30 years old create a “reminiscence bump,” which elicits heightened emotional responses compared to songs from other periods. So, while listening to Christmas tracks might make you feel wistful, it can also help unlock long-forgotten events, names and faces from your past.

Decrease stress levels and reduce pain

As it turns out, those classic Christmas tunes you love are good for your heart. Your blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels can all be decreased—thus reducing stress—when you settle back and enjoy your favorite music. And because holiday music can help relieve stress, it also helps relieve muscle tension that leads to pain.

A Florida International University study found that chronic arthritis patients experienced decreased pain levels while listening to music. Multiple recent studies have also suggested that patients who listened to music in recovery after surgery needed less morphine to manage their pain. Active listening is key, as focusing on music engages your mind and allows less room for pain pathways in your brain.

A note about singing

For many of us, singing Christmas carols with family and friends is a cherished tradition. While the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced our ability to gather, even singing alone or in a small, socially distanced group is proven to strengthen the immune system. According to research by University of Frankfurt in Germany, published in 2019 by the U.S. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, they found that concentrations of immunoglobin A – proteins in the immune system which function as antibodies – and hydrocortisone, an anti-stress hormone, increased significantly during the rehearsal. Many studies done over a number of years have also shown that singing releases endorphins into your system, stimulates circulation, improves aerobic capacity and releases muscle tension.

Finally, a word of caution: When it comes to holiday tunes, don’t overdo it. Playing the same Christmas songs all season long produces cognitive fatigue. Vary your playlists or seek out a few lesser known gems. And be considerate of others. Not everyone associates the holiday season with fun, joyful, family-related memories. Holidays often evoke complex emotions. We miss those we’ve lost and mourn relationships that have changed.

Still, if you’re looking for a little pick-me-up on those chilly December days, dialing up your favorite holiday classics could be just the trick. For a change of pace, check out the free, web-based stations at https://somafm.com/, which offer Christmas Lounge, Jolly Ol’ Soul and Christmas Rocks options to keep the mood fresh.

All opinions expressed here are those of their authors and/or contributors and not of their employer. Any questions or concerns regarding the content found here may be sent to info@austinymca.org

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