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Music therapy reduces meal-related anxiety for anorexia patients

Posted on 03-25-16 in Eating Disorders, Health and Wellness

Music therapy reduces meal-related anxiety for anorexia patients

Music can be used to enhance various aspects of our lives, including our mood, attention, concentration and cognitive function. Music plays an important role in our lives, helping us to calm down when we are feeling upset and comforting us when we are feeling stressed, sad, low in energy, frustrated or angry. The importance of music in our everyday lives has led various researches to explore how different types of music can be therapeutic for those with certain medical and mental health conditions. Music therapy is an evidence-based clinical intervention that can be used to improve mental health and well-being by increasing self-esteem, motivation and verbalization, enhancing interpersonal relationships, reducing muscle tension and providing relief from anxiety, agitation and stress.

According to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), music therapy is beneficial for treating patients who have a number of mental health conditions, including depression, autism, schizophrenia, substance abuse, anxiety and sleep problems. Participating in music therapy can also be an effective therapeutic tool for patients in treatment for anorexia nervosa — an eating disorder characterized by self-starvation, an intense fear of gaining weight and excessive weight loss that can lead to dangerous and life-threatening health consequences — as well as other types of eating disorders, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders.

Meal-related anxiety and distress in anorexia nervosa

Jennifer Bibb, Ph.D., and her colleagues examined the role of music therapy in managing meal-related anxiety for patients with anorexia nervosa. One male and 17 female patients, who were admitted to an eating disorders program within an acute psychiatric unit for anorexia nervosa, were asked to participate in 89 music therapy sessions, which included two one-hour music therapy group sessions per week led by a university-trained registered music therapist, and 84 treatment-as-usual sessions (i.e., structured post-meal support therapy), which involved a one-hour group discussion of feelings, encouragement to focus on achieving admission goals and group activities.

The participants were encouraged to sing, listen to songs, talk about and share music with others, and write songs together during the music therapy intervention, with the goal of distracting the patients from their anxiety and distress related to meals and provide them with an opportunity to use music as a coping mechanism. The participants were asked to self-rate their subjective distress or anxiety using the Subjective Units of Distress Scale (SUDS) before and after the music therapy intervention and post-meal support therapy.

Anorexia nervosa is a type of eating disorder that involves self-starvation, refusal to maintain a normal body weight and an intense preoccupation with one’s body size, image and weight. People with anorexia devote much of their time and energy to controlling what they put in their bodies, restricting their caloric intake and doing what they can to avoid gaining weight. For patients with anorexia nervosa, life in recovery and following treatment can be extremely difficult.

An effective coping mechanism for meal-related anxiety and distress

Mealtime is a significant source of anxiety and distress for these individuals, as gaining weight is one of the biggest fears of people with eating disorders. Weight gain is only one aspect of treatment and recovery for patients with anorexia; however, it is one of the major reasons for relapse following eating disorder treatment. The results of this study indicated that music therapy can be especially beneficial to patients during treatment, especially for reducing significant anxiety and distress related to mealtime. Although the music therapy intervention and the standard post-meal support therapy sessions were both effective in reducing anxiety related to mealtime, there was evidence that group music therapy was more effective in reducing meal-related anxiety compared to the standard post-meal support therapy.

Bibb and her colleagues found that the participation in music therapy following meals could be used as an effective clinical intervention in inpatient settings for reducing meal-related anxiety and distress among patients with anorexia nervosa. Music therapy used in inpatient treatment settings for patients with eating disorders may be beneficial for providing these individuals with an effective coping mechanism for mealtime-related anxiety and distress. Although mealtime is one of the most anxiety-provoking times for patients with anorexia nervosa, music therapy can help them cope with the significant amount of anxiety and distress they experience at this time.

The Sovereign Health Group recognizes the importance of music in the lives of our patients and incorporates experiential therapies such as music and other evidence-based treatments into our comprehensive treatment programs for patients who have mental illnesses, such as eating disorders, substance use and co-occurring disorders. To find out more about how music is incorporated into the behavioral health treatment programs offered at Sovereign Health, please contact our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our team.

About the author
Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at