PTSD - Relief Through Music

A Coping Mechanism for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assualt, R*pe, Trauma

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or, more commonly referred to as PTSD, is defined as a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event

Such traumatic events can include but are not limited to:

  • Natural disasters
  • Serious accidents
  • War/combat
  • Rape/other personal assault

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, it gives voice to eight criteria individuals need to meet to be officially diagnosed with PTSD: 

  1. First, the individual needs to experience one of four events which includes: exposure to actual or threatened death, life threatening injury, sexual violence by direct experience; witnessing a traumatic event happen to someone else; learning that a traumatic event happened directly to a loved one; or being repeatedly exposed to details of traumatic events. 
  2. Secondly, the individual must experience intrusion symptoms. Intrusion symptoms include: distressing memories, distressing dreams, prolonged psychological distress, or intense reactions when exposed to cues that resemble the event.
  3. Thirdly, there has to be an avoidance of stimuli meaning avoidance of memories or external reminders of the event.
  4. Fourth, there has to be negative changes in thought or mood.
  5. Fifth, the individual must have marked changes in reactivity.
  6. Sixth, symptoms have had to have lasted longer than a month.
  7. Seventh, symptoms cannot be due to alcohol or drugs.

People living with PTSD may feel as though their life is being controlled by the disorder. Fortunately, PTSD can be treated. Treatments are being made readily available while huge strides are also being taken in the reduction of stress and anxiety in individuals suffering from the disorder. Music therapy has been proven to be a useful therapeutic tool in the healing process among individuals living with PTSD. 

This post will discuss causal events for PTSD, which have been listed above, as well as the symptoms and treatment options for the disorder. This post will also discuss how music can be used to treat symptoms of PTSD. 

Causal Events of PTSD

Natural Disasters 

What impact do natural disasters have on their victims?

Following a natural disaster, i.e. hurricanes, earthquakes, etc., many people tend to return to their normal level of functioning. However, others may experience distressing thoughts, insomnia, lack of energy, social isolation, and other common reactions. 

The sheer power behind natural forces is difficult for many to comprehend. The loss of items that hold sentimental value such as a childhood home or certain irreplaceable mementos can be a source of deep pain that spirals into a source of trauma. The stress reactions caused by natural disasters such as, Hurricane Sandy, cannot be easily processed by some people. Months, years, or even decades after the disaster, many find the event a hauntingly vivid memory that is still etched in their minds. 

Two people stand in the debris from a hurricane. Trees are broken in half, personal belongings are scattered, and remnants of houses are shown.
Survivors of a 2011 deadly tornado in Joplin, MO search through debris for personal belongings. Image courtesy of


What are the risk factors for developing PTSD after a car accident?

Car accidents are the leading cause of post traumatic stress disorder within the general population. Every year there are nearly 6 million car accidents in the United States alone resulting in 2.5 million injuries. Thirty nine percent of survivors will develop PTSD. 

For many car accident survivors, a predictor of PTSD is how the victim perceived the accident and how they subsequently respond after the accident. This means that if a victim had the perception that their life was in danger, there was a higher chance of developing PTSD six months after the accident.

Other factors that have been found to increase the risk of developing PTSD after a traumatic event are history of prior trauma and family history of psychopathology.

4 people surrounding a car that is flipped over. A woman is walking away from the car crying while on the phone.
This image depicts a car accident survivor in a state of shock after the accident. Image courtesy of The Hoffmann Law Firm


How do veterans experience PTSD?

The stressors that come from military deployment are heightened by the life threatening situations endured by men and women who protect our lives. For many veterans returning home, they may experience vivid flashbacks which involve auditory and visual memories of combat. 

Veterans may also experience PTSD symptoms 50 or more years after their time in a combat heavy environment. Retirement can increase PTSD symptoms in veterans because they are given more time to think about their memories. Suffering from medical problems, seeing bad news on the television, and coping mechanisms such as using alcohol or drugs are other factors that can increase symptoms. 


What are stigmas surrounding victims of sexual assault?

Sexual violence is very common in our society. Nearly 1 in 5 women in the United States were raped or sexually assaulted at one point in their lives. This statistic is made worse in saying that the attacker is usually someone the victim knows. It is also important to remember that sexual assault is not limited to women and can happen to anyone. 

In today’s society there are many myths surrounding sexual violence that are worth pointing out. These myths include: 

  • You can spot a rapist by how he/she looks where in reality there is no way to identify a rapist. Many appear normal and friendly. 
  • If you didn’t fight back during the attack then it really isn’t considered rape. It is a normal bodily response to freeze during a traumatic event meaning the brain and body shut down as a way to protect the victim. 
  • The most commonly discussed myth is surrounding what clothes the victim was wearing at the time of the attack. Many people believe that a victim’s clothes determine if they were “asking for it”. Rape is a crime of opportunity and studies have shown that rapist choose their victims based on vulnerability. 

Psychological wounds are common in people who are victim of sexual violence. These psychological wounds can disrupt day to day life and have a long-term negative impact on the victim’s level of functioning. Sexual assault is the most frequent cause of PTSD in women with an alarmingly high 94% of women experiencing PTSD. One of the most important aspects of assisting in the recovery process of rape victims is putting the control back in their hands and encouraging empowerment. Debunking rape myths, de-stigmatizing the subject, and changing victim blaming attitudes are all important aspects of changing society for the better.

A man teaching a woman how to play guitar. Each person is holding a guitar while the man points out what string to play on the girl's guitar.
The image depicts a music therapist teaching a patient how to play the guitar. Image courtesy of KVC Hospitals

How Music Therapy Can Help With PTSD

Use of Music in Helping Alleviate PTSD

Music therapy is the use of music to address the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of a group or individual. Music therapy influences all aspects of the brain, body, mind. This type of therapy is an alternative self-management technique that has been proven in improving symptoms of PTSD. Music has been shown to improve and reduce the emotional stress induced by trauma.

4 Nebraska Veterans sitting in chairs positioned around a music stand. They are each holding guitars and following what they are seeing on the music stand.
A Nebraska veterans group is helping their vets suffering from post traumatic stress disorder heal using music therapy. Image courtesy of NBC 2.

Research has shown that music can provide a nonverbal outlet for emotional expression for people suffering from PTSD. Music can also improve the physiological and emotional state of someone with PTSD as well as provide an opportunity to reconnect with friends and loved ones. Studies in neuroscience have shown that music itself can help rewire the brain. Now this does not mean erasing traumatic memories, but instead seeing the memories in a new perspective. This new perspective can be used as a coping mechanism to deal with the difficulties of reliving trauma. If you or someone you know is having difficulty coping with PTSD, Incadence is just a video call away. 

Music therapy can be a useful life-affirming tool in helping victims of PTSD better deal with and understand their disorder. 

Edited by Cara Jernigan on January 17, 2021

Haley Wisniewski
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