Can music impact our health?

Sophie, Year 9, asks if and how music can impact our mental and physical health.

Music is everywhere. Wherever we go, no matter where, there will be some sort of tune or melody coming from someplace or another. Virtually all species, from the most primitive to the most modern, make music. In tune or not, our species sing and play, or clap and drum. Music is a cardinal aspect of our lives. The human brain and nervous system are programmed to distinguish music, rhythm and tones from noise and other sounds. Is this a biological accident, or does it serve a purpose? There might be no definite answer, but one could suggest from studies that music may enhance human health.

 

Music has always been a source of expressing people’s feelings, venting emotions and communicating with others, through words and notation. The soothing power of music is well-identified – it can have a big impact on our mental health. It can also have a strong link to our emotions, and, as a result, can be a brilliant form of stress relief. Listening to music can be relaxing for our mind and bodies, especially slow, quiet classical music. This type of music has a beneficial effect by slowing the pulse and heart rate, lowering blood pressure and decreasing the levels of stress hormones. For example, studies[1] show that listening to music with headphones has reduced stress and anxiety in hospital patients before and after surgery. Listening to music can also relieve depression and increase the self-esteem of elderly people.

Music can also absorb our attention and can get rid of any distractions. This means it can be a focus technique as it keeps our mind from wandering. However, music with no structure and no form can have a negative impact on our emotions and can be unsettling and irritating. This is why gentle music with a simple melody is also more comforting. Familiar melodies bring a sense of calmness, awareness and it can be more comforting. The sounds of nature often are incorporated into CDs specifically to target relaxation. The sound of water or leaves or birdsong can be soothing for some. It can help picture calming images and help our minds slow down.

As well as calming, and being a stress relief, music can be a source of happiness. It has the ability to make people of all ages feel cheerful and energetic and could even lift the mood of people with depressive illnesses. A recent study[2] announced that scores of depressive symptoms (extending from 0-60) improved on average 4.65 more with the music therapy than standard care alone. In 2006 a study of sixty adults with chronic pain found that music was able to reduce pain and depression[3]. In 2009 there was another study stating that music assisted relaxation can improve the quality of sleep in patients with sleeping disorders[4].

Some skilled composers manipulate our emotions by knowing what the listeners’ expectations are and controlling when the expectations may (or may not) be met. Composers also change their music to fit our emotions. They will use specific techniques to make us feel a certain way. These techniques could include; tempo (a fast tempo could provoke an energetic feeling, whilst a slow tempo might induce feelings of sadness or tiredness), tonality (major linked to positive and minor negative), dynamics (forte – loud – may portray bold or confident, whilst piano – quiet – could be more subtle).

Some of these factors may cause the listener to maybe start swaying side to side or tapping our feet or nodding our head. This is connected to the dopamine drug which is linked to the pleasure of music. Neuroimaging studies have proven that music can activate the brain areas typically associated with emotions. The deep brain structures that are part of the limbic system like the amygdala or hippocampus as well as the pathways that transmit dopamine (for pleasure associated with music listening). The relationship between listening to music and the dopaminergic pathway is what is behind the ‘chills’ that people claim to experience whilst listening to music[5]. These chills are physiological sensations, like hairs getting raised on your arms, goosebumps down your leg and ‘shivers down your spine’ that is linked to chills.

Whatever your musical preference, understanding that music has a significant impact on our mental and physical health is central to knowing more about the immense power this art has on us. As Napoleon once said, “music is what tells us the human race is greater than we realise.”

 


References

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-33865448

[2] https://www.nhs.uk/news/mental-health/music-therapy-helps-treat-depression/

[3] https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/music-and-health

[4] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/24441233_Music-assisted_relaxation_to_improve_sleep_quality_Meta-analysis

[5] https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/51745/why-does-music-give-us-chills

 

Does gymnastics have the same mental health benefits as yoga or meditation?

Alba, Y9, looks at how gymnastics may help relieve academic stress and help you excel in other subjects.

When we think of calming meditation, most of us will probably jump to mindfulness. In our stressful and busy lives, meditation and mindfulness are becoming increasingly popular. However, is there a right or wrong way to meditate, and can some sports such as gymnastics be classified as a sort of meditation? In fact, gymnastics is a form of focused movement meditation, and that ultimately it is beneficial to your mental health and as such has a potential positive impact on academic results.

What is focused meditation?

Focused meditation is when you concentrate on your five senses. Many people start by focusing on their breath. It sounds easy, but it is surprisingly difficult to think about just one thing, without your mind wondering and getting distracted.

However, being able to focus is a key attribute for success in life, and it’s a skill that we ideally need. Having considered on one of the senses like your breathing, a wider number of senses can be thought about.

But how does gymnastics compare to this?

Before moving, a gymnast must get into the right frame of mind to execute the move with skill. They must be focussed on themselves, and what they are about to do, and not be distracted. In a routine, you always think about the skill you are currently doing, and not what’s coming next. You are therefore being mindful and focussed on yourself in the present time. This can benefit your academic studies, because, just like mindfulness, it clears your brain so you can learn the next day with an open and more relaxed and focussed mind.

What is movement meditation?

Movement meditation helps connect your mind to your body through actions. The most common practice of this is yoga. Again, your focus is the mind. People who do not like sitting still may prefer this method, and it’s ideal when you are feeling energetic.

How does this happen in Gymnastics?

Tumbling in gymnastics is generating power and executing a sequence of flips and moves. This requires you to be aware of what your body’s doing and think about using muscles you may not otherwise use. As such, the movement becomes the focus, allowing all other thoughts to be shut out, focusing on the present and immediate.

Why should you try gymnastics, and why should it be considered a form of meditation?

Some studies[1] show that mindfulness is great, but if you struggle to do it, it can make you potentially more anxious. They also show that movement meditation like yoga can be more effective for people in stressful situations, or for people who are used to more active lifestyles. It explains why one of the reasons scientists like mindfulness – it is a cognitive method.

Personally, I prefer gymnastics to mindfulness, because I find it hard to keep still when sitting and just thinking about your breath. I enjoy the element of fear/excitement of trying a new skill. After doing gymnastics I feel a lot calmer and ready to study and learn.

I would argue that, although not a standard form of meditation, gymnastics offers benefits for stress relief and utilises skills and techniques such as focus which can help you excel in other subjects. We should have a wider view on what is meditation, and what can help us through the stresses of life.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-it/201604/incredible-alternative-mindfulness-you-never-heard

What would happen if there was no stigma around mental illness?

Mental Illness

Emily, Year 12, explores why there is a stigma around mental illnesses, how we can get rid of this stigma, and what effect the stigma has on society.

Mental illness is not just one disorder – and many people know that – but what they don’t understand is quite how expansive the list of disorders is. As young girls, we are taught about anxiety, body dysmorphic disorder, depression, addiction, stress, and self-harm but the likelihood is that we know – from personal experience, through friends, family or even social media – that many more mental illnesses exist. For example: bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, autism and ADHD. Chances are, we all know someone with mental illness whether we know or not – the majority of the time these people function the same way that people with no mental illness do. So why is there such a stigma around mental illness and how can we get rid of the stigma?
When the AIDS epidemic started in the early 1980s, the disease was only affecting minority groups of people who already faced criticism. The disease only furthered this and made the patients virtual pariahs until advocacy groups and communities protested to expand awareness and pressured the U.S. government to fund research for the disease and its cure. In only seven years, scientists were able to: identify that the cause of AIDS was the Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), create the ELISA test to detect HIV in the blood and establish azidothymidine (AZT) as the first antiretroviral drug to help those suffering from HIV/AIDS. This is a prime example of how public knowledge can lead to science pushing the boundaries of their knowledge and finding treatments. Along with treatments eliminating symptoms, they also eliminate the stigma as more and more people are learning about the disease. So why can’t this be the case for mental illness?

In a time when science wasn’t breaking new boundaries every day, and knowledge wasn’t being distributed properly, it is easy to see why those with such complicated illnesses were feared and had such a stigma surrounding them. However, now when the greatest barrier is access to treatments and not the science, and the education about the subject is as high as it has ever been, it is hard to see why there is still such shame in having these illnesses.

But what if there was no stigma? We would have early identification and intervention in the form of screening mechanisms in primary care settings such as GP, paediatric, obstetrics, and gynaecological clinics and offices as well as schools and universities. The goal would be to screen those who are at risk for or are having symptoms of mental illness and engage the patients in self-care and treatment before the illness severely affects their brains, and lives. We would also have community-based comprehensive care for those who are in more advanced stages of illness. This will support people who are unable to care for themselves and who may otherwise end up homeless, in jail or in mental hospitals.
For example: victims of trauma would be treated for PTSD along with any physical injuries while in the hospital to target PTSD before any symptoms started occurring and the patient could hurt themselves or others; first responders would have preventative and decompression treatments routinely administered to treat PTSD before waiting to see who may or may not show symptoms; mothers would be treated for pre/post-partum depression as a part of pre/post-natal check-ups instead of waiting and potentially harming themselves or their baby. Children with learning disabilities would be identified early on so they could get cognitive training, and emotional support to prevent counterproductive frustration due to something they cannot control.

Medical economists have shown that this method of proactive mental healthcare will actually reduce the cost of delivering it. It will also relieve emotional stress (for the patient and their family), financial burden for treatment, and will reduce the occurrence of many of the very prevalent social problems. We all know about the many mass shootings that occur regularly and a great deal of these crimes have been perpetrated by young males who have an untreated mental illness which have presented symptoms for long before the crime was committed – not that I am excusing their behaviour in any way.

As a worldwide community, we must be able to recognise mental illness for what it is – a medical condition that can be treated, be that with behavioural or cognitive therapy or with medication. In order to dissolve the stigma, we must be involved, ask questions, be kind, be compassionate, and make it our own business. There is only so much science can do if people are not willing to take the help they are being given – they need to want to get better. The only way this will happen is if we all help to make it known that having a mental illness is not a bad thing, and that it is easily treatable, and that they are no different from anyone else.

Should we reclaim the asylum?

Asylum

Tara, Year 13, explores whether the asylum would provide the best care for those with mental illnesses or whether it should be left in the past.

AsylumWhen someone says asylum in the context of psychology, what do you immediately think of? I can safely assume most readers are picturing haunted Victorian buildings, animalistic patients rocking in corners and scenes of general inhumanity and cruelty. However, asylum has another meaning in our culture. Asylum, when referring to refugees, can mean sanctuary, hope and care. Increasingly people are exploring this original concept of asylum, and whether we, in a time when mental illness is more prevalent than ever, can reclaim the asylum? Or is it, and institutional in general, confined to history?

In the last 40 years, there has been a shift towards, “care in the community” and deinstitutionalization, facilitated by the development of various new medications and therapies. This has undeniably led to significant improvements in many individual’s mental wellbeing, better protected their human rights and reduced stigmatisation.

However, it also has led to significant cuts in facilities for those unable to transition into society, with almost no long-term beds available in mental health hospitals or inpatient units. Whilst this has left some dependent on family and friends for support, many have ended up in prison or homeless, with a third of the homeless population estimated to be suffering from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Some would, therefore, argue that a reinvention and rebranding of the asylum could provide long term care for severely and chronically ill patients, who even with intensive therapies and drugs, are unlikely to reintegrate back into society.

Designed in collaboration with patients and experts, these ‘asylums’ are not necessarily all intended to be large scale hospitals. The system is intended to be flexible, varied and voluntary where possible.  By providing more community-based institutions, with as low a density of residents as possible, we can maximise privacy and trained staff can focus on each patient as individuals in a less punishing environment, removing many of the factors contributing to their distress, and overall improving their quality of life.

Arguably patients may become less isolated, as they are given a safe space to socialize and engage with people they can relate to and support. Unlike temporary units and mental health wards, these institutions would provide long term stability and respite, away from the continuous turbulence and disruption typical of hospitals.

Lastly many will benefit from the structure, intensive therapy and monitoring of medication provided by institutionalisation, which greatly reduces the likelihood of individuals harming themselves or relapsing. Some would argue the notion is too idealistic and that current models provide a utopian ideal of mental health care, and whilst seemingly unattainable it demonstrates to policymakers the importance and possibility of a change in direction.

This reinvention would require considerable time, money and commitment, especially as mental health care has been historically underfunded.  However, in this ever-changing climate the asylum might seem like a taboo topic of the past, but if we can shift our focus, if we can overcome our assumptions and reclaim the asylum in both meaning and function, it could be a thing of the future.

The Brain Chemistry of Eating Disorders

Jo, Year 13, explores what is happening chemically inside the brains of those suffering from eating disorders and shows how important this science is to understanding these mental health conditions.

The definition of an eating disorder is any range of psychological disorders characterised by abnormal or disturbed eating habits. Anorexia is defined as a lack or loss of appetite for food and an emotional disorder characterised by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat. Bulimia is defined as an emotional disorder characterised by a distorted body image and an obsessive desire to lose weight, in which bouts of extreme overeating are followed by fasting, self-induced vomiting or purging. Anorexia and bulimia are often chronic and relapsing disorders and anorexia has the highest death rate of any psychiatric disorder. Individuals with anorexia and bulimia are consistently characterised by perfectionism, obsessive-compulsiveness, and dysphoric mood.

Dopamine and serotonin function are integral to both of these conditions; how does brain chemistry enable us to understand what causes anorexia and bulimia?

Dopamine

Dopamine is a compound present in the body as a neurotransmitter and is primarily responsible for pleasure and reward and in turn influences our motivation and attention. It has been implicated in the symptom pattern of individuals with anorexia, specifically related to the mechanisms of reinforcement and reward in engaging in anorexic behaviours, such as restricting food intake. Dysfunction of the dopamine system contributes to characteristic traits and behaviours of individuals with anorexia which includes compulsive exercise and pursuit of weight loss.

In people suffering from anorexia dopamine levels are stimulated by restricting to the point of starving. People feel ‘rewarded’ by severely reducing their calorie intake and in the early stages of anorexia the more dopamine that is released the more rewarded they feel and the more reinforced restricting behaviour becomes. Bulimia involves dopamine serving as the ‘reward’ and ‘feel good’ chemical released in the brain when overeating. Dopamine ‘rushes’ affect people with anorexia and bulimia, but for people with anorexia starving releases dopamine, whereas for people with bulimia binge eating releases dopamine.

Serotonin

Serotonin is responsible for feelings of happiness and calm – too much serotonin can produce anxiety, while too-little may result in feelings of sadness and depression. Evidence suggests that altered brain serotonin function contributes to dysregulation of appetite, mood, and impulse control in anorexia and bulimia. High levels of serotonin may result in heightened satiety, which means it is easier to feel full. Starvation and extreme weight loss decrease levels of serotonin in the brain. This results in temporary alleviation from negative feelings and emotional disturbance which reinforces anorexic symptoms.

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid found in the diet and is the precursor of serotonin, which means that it is the molecule required to make serotonin. Theoretically, binging behaviour is consistent with reduced serotonin function while anorexia is consistent with increased serotonin activity. So decreased tryptophan levels in the brain, and therefore decreased serotonin, increases bulimic urges.

Conclusions

Distorted body image is another key concept to understand when discussing eating disorders. The area of the brain known as the insula is important for appetite regulation and also interceptive awareness, which is the ability to perceive signals from the body like touch, pain, and hunger. Chemical dysfunction in the insula, a structure in the brain that integrates the mind and body, may lead to distorted body image, which is a key feature of anorexia. Some research suggests that some of the problems people with anorexia have regarding body image distortion can be related to alterations of interceptive awareness. This could explain why a person recovering from anorexia can draw a self-portrait of their body image that is typically 3x its actual size. Prolonged untreated symptoms appear to reinforce the chemical and structural abnormalities in the brains seen in those diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia.

Therefore, in order to not only understand and but also treat both anorexia and bulimia, it is central to look at the brain chemistry behind these disorders in order to better understand how to go about successfully treating them.

 

Why using your five senses is the key to practising mindfulness at school – 19/10/18

Lucy (Year 8) looks at how our senses can be used to help us to practise mindfulness within the school day and the potential benefits this can have on our overall mental health and wellbeing.

The word mindfulness can conjure up an image of a class doing yoga or meditating.  But its key essence is about deliberately bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. It is about turning ourselves off autopilot, and noticing our present being. In the life of a busy Wimbledon High girl, this can be a challenging and daunting prospect. Focusing on our five senses will bring us into the ‘here and now’, and might be the crucial tool for dealing with stressful and anxiety inducing situations.

The senses are how we understand the world, and to obtain the most positive experience from the present moment we need to employ them in everything we do. Studies by Dr. Patrizia Collard (Sensory Awareness Mindfulness Training in Coaching: Accepting Life’s Challenges, Collard & Walsh, 2008) demonstrate that focussing on our senses, and non-judgementally on our current situation, results in a significant improvement in a range of conditions such as anxiety, depression and stress disorders.

A simple mindfulness exercise that could be practiced during the day at school, and without the use of a yoga mat, is the 5-4-3-2-1 tool. This exercise is an effective method of regaining control of your mind when anxiety or stress threaten to take over and reminds us to interact with the world using our five senses. It requires you to think of five things that you can see (e.g. a picture on a classroom wall).  Then you think of 4 things that you hear (e.g. the orchestra rehearsing in the Senior Hall), three things you can touch (e.g. your earrings), two things you smell (e.g. tea or coffee) and one thing you can taste (e.g. breaktime snacks).  This exercise can help you become more aware of your present situation and reduce potential stress.

Good mental health is something we should all aim for, and psychologists around the world are investigating ways to maintain a consistent level of positive mental health. Using our five senses and practicing mindfulness can help us be resilient when going through a time of stress and help keep us grounded in reality. Learning to focus on the external factors present around us helps avoid excessive focus on internal issues and can moderate extremes of feeling or emotion. Consistency and balance are crucial when aspiring to have good mental health.

However, mindfulness should not be a tool reserved only for stressful situations. Just like training for a sport, mindfulness needs to be practiced and developed to make it the most effective it can be.  Using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique and your five senses are a simple way of practicing mindfulness because you do not need equipment, a long time, or any external help. Our body has the tools we need to master mindfulness, we just need to trust them and exercise them.

For further reading, see the book “How to be yourself” by Clinical Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen (buy it here for a paper by Harvard Medical School about the benefits mindfulness has on stress and anxiety levels.

Japan- a culture to die for? Cultural attitudes to suicide in Japan and the West

Wimbledon High History

Gaining publicity following Youtuber Logan Paul’s video filmed in Aokigahara, one of Japan’s suicide hotspots, the extremely high suicide rate in Japan has been featured increasingly in Western news. In this article, Jess Marrais aims to explore possible historical and traditional reasons for both Japan and Western attitudes towards suicide.

The world of YouTube and social media crossed over into mainstream media on 1st January 2018 following a video uploaded by popular YouTuber, Logan Paul. Paul and a group of friends, while traveling around Japan, decided to film a video in ‘Aokigahara’, a forest at the base of Mt Fuji, famous as the second most popular suicide location in the world. The video, which has since been taken down, showed graphic images of an unknown man who had recently hanged himself, and Paul and the rest of his party were shown to joke and trivialise the forest and all that it represents.

Unsurprisingly, Paul received a lot of backlash, as did YouTube for their lack of response in regards to the video itself. This whole situation has restarted a discussion into Japanese suicide rates, both online and in mainstream media sources such as the BBC.

In the discussions surrounding the problem, I fear that little has been said in the UK about the cultural attitudes in Japan towards suicide, and how drastically they conflict with the historical beliefs entrenched in our own culture.

In Christianity, suicide is seen as one of the ultimate sins- to kill oneself is to play God, to decide when a soul should leave the Earth, and breaks one of the 10 Commandments (‘Thou shall not murder’). Historically, those victim to suicide were forbidden from having a Christian funeral or burial, and it was believed that their souls would have no access to heaven. As a result of this, it makes sense that in Christian countries suicide is frowned upon. We in the West view the high suicide rate in Japan, and other East-Asian countries, through our own cultural understanding; while in actual fact, the problem should be seen within the context of the cultural and historical setting of the countries themselves.

In Japan, the history of the samurai plays a large role in attitudes towards suicide. The samurai (military nobility) had monopoly over early Japan, and they lived by the code of ‘Bushido’- moral values emphasising honour. One of the core values of Bushido was that of ‘seppuku’- should a samurai lose in battle or bring dishonour to his family or shogun (feudal lord), he must kill himself by slitting open his stomach with his own sword in order to regain his- and his family’s – honour in death. Due to the prominent role the samurai played in Japanese society, this idea of killing oneself to regain honour seeped into all aspects of society, thanks to personal and familial honour being a central part of Japanese values, even today.

More recently, this warrior attitude to death can be seen in the famous World War II ‘kamikaze’ pilots- pilots who purposefully crashed their planes, killing themselves and destroying their targets (usually Allied ships). These pilots were typically young, and motivated by the prospect of bringing honour to their family and Emperor in death. During the war, 3,682 kamikaze pilots died, spurred on by the samurai code of Bushido.

In modern day, suicide is seen by many in Japan as taking responsibility. Suicide rates in Japan soared after the 2008 financial crash, reaching their highest at the end of the 2011 economic year. Current statistics say around 30,000 Japanese people of all ages commit suicide each year, as opposed to 6,600 per year in the UK.  Increasing numbers of Japan’s aging population (those over 65) are turning to suicide to relieve their family of the burden of caring for them. Some cases even say of unemployed men killing themselves to enable their family to claim their life insurance, in contrast to the UK where suicide prevents life insurance being from claimed. Regardless of the end of the samurai era and the Second World War, the ingrained mentality of honour drives thousands of people in Japan to end their own lives, motivated not only by desperation, but also the desire to do the right thing.

If anything can be taken away from this, it is to view stories and events from the cultural context within which they occur. While suicide is a tragic occurrence regardless of the country/culture in which it happens, social pressures and upbringing can – whether we are aware of it or not – influence a person’s actions. If this lesson can be carried forward to different cultures and stories, we will find ourselves in a world far more understanding and less judgemental than our current one.

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Suicide hotlines:

  • PAPYRUS: support for teenagers and young adults who are feeling suicidal – 0800 068 41 41

Further reading: