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Rhythm – a helpful tool in recovery and mental wellness

The scene is similar each time – participants enter a room set up in a circle of chairs, each with a drum in front of it. Many times, the activity comes as a surprise that the participants weren’t expecting. Occasionally, it is met with some resistance – “I don’t want to” or “I can’t drum” being common remarks. Others simply look pained or anxious or bored, like they want to fly right out of the room.

“We’re going to have fun,” I say encouragingly to the group. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve never touched a drum before in your life; most people I drum with have never played drums before!” The skeptical expressions continue, but slowly start to fade away as we start rumbling on the drums. I even see a few smiles peeking out!

This scene plays out in lots of different settings, with many different benefits. There is a growing amount of research out there that shows participating in group rhythm and music activities can have positive lasting effects on mental health, physical wellness, and mood. Let’s look at three of the top proven benefits of rhythm in recovery settings – and indeed, in many settings, from the corporate boardroom to the yoga studio.

1. Group drumming can support mental health and wellness

One UK study which focused on people who were recipients of mental health services but not on antidepressants found “significant improvements” in the group that participated in 10 weeks of drumming programs, versus the control group which were enrolled in community group social activities. The drumming group experienced decreases in depression, increases in social resilience, and improvements in anxiety and mental wellbeing. Another Australian study focused on drumming with Vietnam vets with PTSD, and credited some of the success of that program with the “strong bonds formed between participants.” The study highlighted the importance of early intervention in soldiers with PTSD returning from combat. Research has shown that participating in group rhythm activities can significantly increase social resilience after someone has experienced a trauma. For my part, even when I facilitate group rhythm events in non-trauma populations, the participants often feel inspired to share stories with each other that are at times deeply personal and traumatic, because they trust the group with whom they’ve just formed a bond, to show their support and encouragement.

2. Drumming can boost immunity and mood

While there are some studies that confirm that music in general can boost immunity, other studies have focused on drumming specifically to demonstrate an increase in “natural killer cell activity” (Natural Killer cells, or NK, are the white blood cells that seek out and destroy cancer and virally infected cells). I like to think of it as similar to working out – when your body is able to produce all those ‘feel-good’ hormones like serotonin during bouts of physical activity, you’re better able to fight off infection. In this case, mental and physical wellness go hand in hand – when you’re happy, you’re active, and when you’re active, you’re happy!

3. Drumming can help promote mindfulness and empathy

Psychotherapist Robert Friedman explains what’s going on in the brain when you drum:

“When people drum, something happens to their brain that only happens when people are drumming together or when people are in deep meditation…the brain usually operates with either the left or right side independently. People generally cycle in 20 minutes per side. But when drumming, we experience something called hemispheric synchronization, where both sides work at the same time. Scientists believe this is the basis of transcendent states of consciousness. People feel two opposite emotions simultaneously: energized and relaxed.”

The simple act of beating a drum can promote mindfulness because you’re focusing all your energy on keeping the beat and playing along with others – you’re in the moment, and all the other concerns of your day are momentarily dismissed; in fact, when they start to creep back in after you’re done drumming, you may even be in a better frame of mind to deal with them effectively and with minimal stress.

Drumming can also promote empathy and group support in a very organic way. Sally Bonkrude, a board-certified music therapist, notes that drumming can be an effective form of validation.

“You’re speaking through rhythm, she says. “You are repeating someone’s pattern, saying ‘I heard you.’”

Putting it into perspective

At the end of the drum session, I like to ask participants to share one word about how they’re feeling at that moment, compared to when they started. Some of the most common responses are engaged, relaxed, powerful, inspired, connected, buzzing, energized, uplifted. Many people appear to have made a visible connection with other participants in the group, and the sense of calm reverence and quiet conversations continues as people pick themselves up and gradually transition back into their lives. For a brief time during their day, everything was perfect and whole in that drum circle. The implied challenge to the group? To keep that momentum going in your daily journey of mental wellness.

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