The stress-relief industry is booming. Mindfulness and meditation have become common practices in many large corporations, and research is backing their positive effects on stress management, cognitive functions and general health. Understanding the mechanisms of stress and relaxation as well as their effects on the brain and mind can help in creating a lifestyle that supports wellbeing throughout life. Recent research shows that music may have special power in dissolving stress and creating room for relaxation in our busy lives.
We all know what stress feels like. What is going on in the body when we’re stressed, what kinds of physiological processes cause the stress reaction? The stress reaction is caused by activation of the sympathetic nervous system, part of the autonomous nervous system, meaning a system that we have very little control over. The activation of the sympathetic nervous system influences many functions of the body: heart rate and blood pressure rise, the pupils of the eye dilate, sweating increases, blood rushes to the muscles, they may start trembling, the mouth gets dry and digestion halts to save energy. Stimuli that cause this activation are called stressors and include for instance startling, loud noises and exposure to threatening stimuli. Stressors can be things we encounter in our environments, but they can just as easily be things that we imagine. For instance, having to speak in public is a very common stressor that can activate the stress response and the sympathetic nervous system. Also, the mere thought of public speaking can cause the very same activation. This means that what counts as a stressor is highly subjective.
The physiological stress reaction can sometimes be unpleasant and counterproductive – for instance it’s not exactly helpful to have a dry mouth and knocking knees when you’re trying to project an image of confidence and be clear in your presentation. However, the stress reaction is your body trying its best to help you. Scientists believe the reaction has evolved to help humans survive life-threatening situations. For example, if you confronted a predator in the prehistoric era, you had a greater chance of outrunning it or beating it in a fight with all systems ready: muscles filled with blood and energy, heart ready to pump and acute vision. This is why the stress reaction is also often called the fight or flight response.
What happens in the brain during the stress response? A review published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience summarizes the effects of stress on brain function and the mechanisms through which it affects thinking. In the brain, stress results in neurotransmitters called catecholamines to be released. In the case of small or moderate stress, they support the functioning of the frontal lobes, and result in an alert, focused state of mind. However, if the stress goes overboard, catecholamines are released in excess, in essence knocking out the frontal lobes. This brain area is important for higher cognitive functions such as planning, problem-solving and flexibility of thought. With these functions wiped out, more primitive reactions can surface – people become impulsive, irritable and irrational. For instance, in a study published in 2015, researchers found that stressed-out subjects had a harder time making healthy snack choices!
Typically a small amount of stress promotes healthy functioning of the human body in a trying circumstance. However, sometimes the stress reaction becomes prolonged and can have serious adverse effects on health. This type of chronic stress has been connected to an increase in inflammatory agents in the blood stream, which in turn prolongs, for instance, the healing of wounds, results in repeated colds, and is connected to serious health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain cancers. Furthermore, chronic occupational stress has been connected to atrophy in the certain parts of the frontal lobes as well as the striatum, important for pleasure and motivation.
In summary, chronic stress can have detrimental effects on the cognitive abilities that are most needed at work and the brain areas that support these abilities, as well as on general health. Luckily, there are many things we can do to counteract the effects of stress. One of these is mere knowledge about the stress reaction (good thing you have read this far!). In a study published in 2011, researchers investigated the influence of how subjects thought about their stress on the physiological effects it exerted. A third of the subjects were assigned to a group that was informed about the physiology of stress and told that the increase in heart rate, the dry mouth, the trembling were there to help the individual and not harm. One third were told that the best way to cope with the stress reaction was to ignore it and one third was not given information about stress. All subjects were then stressed by the Trier Social Stress Test. This test is very effective and routinely used to elicit the stress response in scientific experiments: it requires participants to deliver a 5-minute speech in front of evaluators, often dressed in white lab coats, who provide negative feedback about the speech. After the speech the participants in this study were also asked to count backwards from 996 in steps of 7 while the evaluators again provided negative feedback about the subject’s performance.
Amazingly, the subjects who had received information about stress and changed their appraisal of the stress response from negative to positive, experienced less constriction of blood vessels during stress and showed better cardiac efficiency than the subjects who were instructed to ignore the stress or the subjects who did not receive specific instruction or information about the stress response. This difference in physiological responses to stress that knowledge and reappraisal can make may be behind the astounding findings of lower premature mortality in individuals who were highly stressed in their lives but did not believe that stress affected their health negatively, than in individuals who were highly stressed and believed that the effect was negative on health. Therefore, if you remember only one thing from this post, let it be that the stress reaction is there to help you!
In addition to knowledge and appraisal of the stress reaction, there are many other ways to counter the negative effects it may have on the body and mind. Luckily, the body is not only capable of fight of flight, but also of the relaxation response, brought on by activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. Much like its sympathetic sister, the parasympathetic nervous system also influences many organs and systems in the body: with activation of this system, heart rate and blood pressure decrease, the muscles relax, digestion and salivation activate and sexual arousal is possible. The sympathetic nervous system is activated by perception of a stressor, but the parasympathetic nervous system becomes active in the absence of stressors or activating stimuli. However, our lives are nowadays built in a way that stressors are abundant. We may spend our workday in a state of constant stress only to come home to spend time in front of a screen delivering more activating stimuli. States of low arousal and relaxation have to be therefore consciously created to allow the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. Meditation and mindfulness practices create the opportunity for just this, which may in part explain the positive effects on health that people experience.
Another very powerful way to create opportunities for the relaxation response to activate is through music. A study published in 2015 that we recently wrote about found that listening to music has a powerful influence on the physiological effects of stress. However, the effect depends on the mindset of the listener – the study found that only music which was listened to with the explicit intent of relaxing significantly lowered stress levels as well as concentrations of cortisol, the hormone released during the stress response. In addition to intent, a recently published study showed that personal preference also plays an important role in the stress-alleviating effects of music listening. In summary, music can be an enjoyable and powerful stress relief, but whether it works depends on many subjective factors.
Why is the Sync Project writing about stress? As stress is a major factor in overall health, wellbeing and cognitive fitness, understanding the effects of music listening on physiology and its promises for stress management could result in important advances for supporting health on a global scale. The Sync Project aims at enabling research that takes into account personal preference, listening context and other subjective factors in determining the physiological and stress management effects of music listening that takes place in real life.