How music can help to ease anxiety at work

Marianne Rizkallah, Music Therapist for music licensing company PPL PRS 

A lot has happened since March 2020, hasn’t it? For those of us who were making it through life well enough, it now seems surprising to not know of someone experiencing symptoms of anxiety or feel a little on edge yourself. As many of us return to the office for the first time since the pandemic hit or embark on the next chapter in our lives, it’s common  and okay  to feel stress and worry. 

There are many methods that are known to help with soothing anxious symptoms, including meditation, being at one with nature and self-care. But did you know that music can play a powerful role in alleviating low feelings?

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Marianne Rizkallah, Music Therapist for music licensing company, PPL PRS

Firstly, let’s establish the signs of anxiety. We may experience physical symptoms such as a quickening heart rate, shallow breaths, fatigue and muscle aches. In a workplace context, anxiety can manifest as feeling irritated by our colleagues or paranoia, whereby we presume the worst when a senior manager makes a comment.

Our minds can be masters at playing tricks on our bodies, causing symptoms to feel very real and overwhelming. What it means though, is that if we can harness the power of music to calm our anxious minds then our physical symptoms should subside too.

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Music affects both our autonomic nervous system which manages our heartbeat, and our limbic system which regulates our emotions. A 2013 study showed that listening to music before a source of stress accelerated recovery time compared to those that did not listen to music.

How about those shivers down our spine that we feel when listening to music? Well, that’s a result of a dopamine hit, both from when we hear the music we like and at the point we anticipate it coming.

In my music therapy work, I observe first-hand how music aids those experiencing anxiety at work. An interesting example is from one that I have previously worked with who found it hard to keep on top of their admin and realised that this dramatically worsened during the lockdowns. Their musical solution was to use the beat of their music to stay focused, utilising a bar’s countdown (“4, 3, 2, 1”) to fire off emails and messages on the strong beat of the next bar. They found that it helps keep them motivated and immersed in the task at hand, while also bringing an element of fun to the job.

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Credit: Alina Grubnyak

In a recent PPL PRS survey[1], nearly all respondents agreed that different types of music affect their mood in different ways — i.e. some tracks lift their spirits, while others leave them feeling mellow. Almost two-thirds (63%) answered ‘yes definitely’ while 31% said ‘yes sometimes’.

Another study points to the ideal type of music that is perfect for anxiety reduction. Namely, it must contain a steady tempo, a simple melody and a relatively predictable harmony. Although from experience, personal preference is also extremely important — if a rock and reggae piece each contain the musical relaxation tools described above, the one you prefer listening to is more likely to calm you!

[1] A survey of 2,101 UK respondents by Perspectus Global in September 2021.    

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Credit: Blaz Erzetic

How to use music to ease yourself back into work

Returning to the office after tackling from your to-do list from home, furlough or to start a new role can feel intimidating. Using music as part of your return-to-work strategy might help you ease your mind in various ways:

Play music without lyrics to aid concentration.

Having a musical “sound bath” without the distraction of words can gives your mind the space to tune into your immediate surroundings. This is ideal when the office feels slightly overwhelming or you’re working to a tight deadline.

Use the office playlist to bond with your colleagues.

A recent PPL PRS survey found that nearly a third (32%) of office-based Brits surveyed feel that music is an important aspect in creating a positive work environment. Compiling a playlist with your peers’ favourite artists and / or songs can boost morale and is an ideal icebreaker, promoting harmony in the office while kickstarting conversations.

Try faster music to give you an energy boost.

Music genres with a slightly higher BPM (beats per minute) than your heart rate will encourage your heart to keep pace, pumping more oxygen around your body and have you firing on all cylinders. Exercise may spring to mind; indeed, music can enhance sporting performance — whether you’re in the gym or gearing up for a game. So, why not try a quicker tempo to tackle your to-do list? According to a PPL PRS survey , pop music is the most popular genre to power productivity (43%) while over a quarter (26%) of respondents prefer rock. Whichever genre takes your fancy, find a fast track to turbo-charge your working day.

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About Marianne Rizkallah

Marianne Rizkallah is Vice Chair and Trustee for the British Association of Music Therapy, Director of North London Music Therapy and Music Therapy Outreach and Enterprise Tutor for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Marianne qualified as a music therapist from the Guildhall in 2013.

As a music therapist, Marianne has worked with children, adolescents, adults and the elderly, working with clinical groups including mental health, SEBD, psychosis, autism and dementia. She has worked in the NHS, the education sector (including work in a PRU), the third sector and in private practice. Marianne specialises in setting up new work and in service evaluation.

Marianne also works as a professional singer and vocal coach. She plays flute, piano, ukulele and drums.

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