Music can change the world because it can change people. – Bono
New research shows that people with depression use music in different ways depending on their styles of coping. Music has long been known as a source of comfort, bonding, and mood enhancement. It can strengthen social bonds by encouraging expression and can be an important vehicle strengthening social relationships throughout our lives. But it may also keep listeners ruminating when they are depressed.
The research, published in Frontiers in Psychology, sheds light on how listening to sad music might provide social benefits for some, while reinforcing depressive symptoms in others. The key to understanding the results is whether or not the thought process of the listener is healthy or unhealthy to begin with. An unhealthy style would be a tendency to ruminate about negative feelings, while a healthier one is being reflective, and reframing negative experiences. The online survey of nearly 700 participants ranged in age from 16 to 74 and showed a clear trend that those with an unhealthy coping style use music for ruminative purposes—whether the music was listened to in a group setting or in isolation. Listening to sad music and talking about sad things tend to make (particularly young) people more depressed if they have unhealthy coping styles to begin with.
The research shows that young people vulnerable to depression and rumination may use music to increased focus on negative emotions, which in turn can increase depressive symptoms for at risk individuals. Distressed individuals engage in what the authors call ‘group rumination’ when they listen to depressing music. In this way they stay focused on negative thoughts and events while amplifying dysfunctional thought patterns. This points to the need to develop healthy coping strategies, social support, and the opportunity to process emotions in a constructive way. Indeed, the research indicates that those listening to music with these reflective and positive strategies have,“…a much higher likelihood of being positive.”
According to Dr. Garrido, lead researcher on the study: “Susceptible individuals with a predilection for rumination may be most likely to suffer negative outcomes from group rumination, with social feedback deepening and exacerbating negative thoughts and feelings.”
This research directly challenges the idea that social relationships, long held as something that guards against depression, may actually cause an increase of negative emotions in individuals with unhealthy coping styles in group settings. In other words, music won’t help, and may actually make things worse, if you don’t have healthy strategies in place ahead of time.
The work is in developing ways of thinking about negative emotions and developing resilience. Perhaps a way to get started is learning how to challenge your own thoughts. An excellent book on the subject is The Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte.
You can also watch this brief video on the topic, or this informational post from the American Psychological Association.