Music Therapy: The Best Kept Secret in Addiction Recovery
Creative Arts Therapy is an effective and evidence-based form of treatment that can help those who are suffering from addiction find their unique path to wellness. Many diverse practices fall within this field, with dance and music therapy being the most popular avenues. We spoke with music therapist Kathy Murphy, PhD, MT-BC, about the healing work that she conducts each day.
On Music Therapy as a Recovery Tool
"Music therapists design music experiences to help recovering addicts maintain their sobriety by addressing the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual elements of the disease process."
Kathy Murphy: "I’ve been a music therapist for over thirty years, and I received a doctoral degree in Music Therapy from Temple University. I’ve worked with almost all clinical populations, but recently, my critical work has focused on people who are in substance abuse recovery or who have co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse disorders.
"Music therapists design music experiences to help recovering addicts maintain their sobriety by addressing the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual elements of the disease process. In early recovery, we might focus more on the physical aspects — using music experiences to help manage withdrawal symptoms. These experiences help the addict learn healthy ways of dealing with stress that involve a creative process rather than substance use."
On Customizing Therapy
"Specific music experiences can look at specific issues. Let’s take anger, for example. How do you deal with anger? How do you deal with isolation? What are some of the behaviors you encounter when you’re angry? These are examined through song discussion, songwriting, or music and imagery. Sometimes it’s done through improvisation, which is the extemporaneous creation of music in the moment.
"In therapy, we might ask: how are you feeling right now? Listen to the music and then contemplate: what was your role in the music? Were you the leader, were you the follower, were you drowning everybody out? How did you feel about what you were doing? Did you ever have any of those feelings manifest in your addiction? How are they manifested in your sober life? We make connections between what happens in the music and what’s going on in everyday life."
On Denial and Facing the Truth of Your Addiction
"Music experiences help people learn how to quiet themselves, to listen — to turn off the committee in their heads."
"Denial is a common problem with people who are in recovery, and music therapy helps them begin to see and understand the unmanageability and powerlessness in their lives. We might conduct music experiences that involve the use of songs by composers who have written about substance abuse, as their music serves as a kind of abstract reflection of that powerlessness and unmanageability. It gets people to talk about their own experiences, to connect the dots.
"Sometimes, people are in denial because they have not been able to own the unmanageability and powerlessness in their lives. During this re-creative process, they might see something in a different light. Working within the context of the group, sometimes you can find a common denominator that will get people to be more in touch with themselves. We take that discussion and move it into a songwriting or improvisation practice, or music and imagery, to further process what’s going on."
On Music and Spirituality
"Of course, music has a very strong connection with spirituality. I use mostly music and imagery to work on developing the skills to be able to do the eleventh step [of recovery] through prayer or meditation. You can’t do that if you don’t know how to meditate, if you can’t quiet yourself for thirty seconds. Music experiences help people learn how to quiet themselves, to listen — to turn off the committee in their heads, so to speak. These kinds of exercises can lead to some pretty powerful spiritual experiences within the context of music therapy."
On Making Connections
"Oftentimes, people, through music therapy, will learn something about themselves that can help them in their recovery. There is one gentleman who, when he reported on his experience, drew a mandala, which is a circle drawing. In the mandala, he had his relationship between him and his higher power. He happened to notice that his drawing was missing ears, and he had a moment of: 'Wow! I do all the talking, I don’t sit and listen.' After that, he was able to take that realization into other areas of his life.
"[Creative arts therapists] help people create positive information. What we know from cognitive-behavioral theories is that if you can replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk, it's going to decrease anxiety, it’s going to help you feel better, it’s going to work with your mood. Music therapy helps people learn how to listen to themselves internally and how to develop those coping skills that are going to help keep them sober."