Sing loud and clear for holiday cheer – and health

We all know the songs, so why not sing along? Singing and listening to music can improve the holidays for everyone, young to old.

You’ve probably heard a holiday song today, or perhaps you even hummed one to yourself. This time of year, it’s hard to get away from them. They’re even on ring tones.

Whether you find it uplifting or annoying, there’s good reason to join in the caroling, says Casey Brasher, a board-certified music therapist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Singing, and even listening to music, is good for your body and your mind, and it is something everyone in the family, from youngest to oldest, can do together – perfect pitch not required.

“Music is so beneficial to so many different populations and ages, in so many different ways,” Brasher says. “Music can take us to different places.” For people dealing with pain or anxiety, not uncommon during the holidays, music can be especially helpful for distraction to a heap of holiday chores, or relaxation while circling the parking lot again and again.

“When you are singing, you have to take a deeper breath,” Brasher says. “That extra oxygen can really help people calm down.” It can lower a person’s heart rate as well, she says. Just like taking a deep sigh, it has a relaxing effect on the body.

In a clinical setting, music therapists use patient-preferred music, and cater to the needs of patients by using their favorite music to help achieve physical goals. Many patients begin asking as early as October for Christmas music because it is tied to so many special memories and they want to feel all the emotions that go with those good memories, she says.

“A lot of time patients who may have Alzheimer’s or dementia may not be able to remember who their family members are, or where they are, or even who they are sometimes, but they can sing a familiar song and Christmas songs are familiar,” Brasher says.

But anyone can benefit from an occasional “fa la la,” and Brasher offers these tips to use music as a holiday stress reliever:

  • Take a moment for yourself in a quiet place and play a song that you find soothing. “Listen to the lyrics, maybe sing along and take some deep breaths. Relaxation is important.”
  • If you or your family is in crisis during the holidays, singing can help normalize the situation. “It’s something that everyone knows and everyone can enjoy, and it can take an awkward or uncomfortable situation and make it more comfortable.”
  • To enjoy music with your family, come together in one place without distraction. Sing songs that are familiar to everyone.

For people who are experiencing health difficulties, singing can increase muscle strength in the neck and back of the tongue, and by breathing more deeply, patients can increase their lung capacity, which helps them take bigger breaths and increases oxygenation to the body. Patients who have had a stroke or other trauma and can’t speak often can sing, because music is processed in a different part of the brain.

Brasher says you don’t necessarily have to sing to reap the benefits of music.

One example music therapists see is when they play music for premature infants. “When they listen to music, their oxygen saturation can actually improve; we can see it on the monitors,” Brasher says. “Sometimes nurses have to turn down their supplemental oxygen, because their blood is oxygenated when they hear that music. That can be true for patients who are in the ICU, too. That stimulation, hearing the music, can improve vital signs.”

So while singing holiday songs might not part the teeming traffic waters at the mall or deliver that last-minute gift idea on time, the physiological benefits just might help you survive the season with a little more jolly and a little less folly.