Singing for Well being
I recently attended a Webinar "Supporting children with feelings of anxiety at Forest school", delivered by The Therapeutic Forest. The Clinical Psychologist Dr Vikki Aadahl, identified that incorporating singing into our sessions, was one of the key strategies to help children regulate their anxiety.
I love to sing and use singing with children, and I felt motivated to explore a little bit more, the current thinking on the link between singing and mental well being. I also felt inspired to begin a project to record and share some of the songs I have collected over the years, that would work in a Forest School setting. This blog combines these two aspects, and I hope it will inspire others to use more singing in their work.
Singing is an ancient practice in humans, that is thought to have developed very early on in our evolution, maybe even predating speech. There is no human culture on the planet that does not sing. The reason why our ancient ancestors first developed singing is not fully understood, but one hypothesis is that it brought people together and led to bonding. Singing together creates a feeling of connection. Our ancient ancestors needed to feel connected and a sense of belonging for their survival. The need and benefits of singing may therefore be deeply wired into us.
In our modern times, there is an increasing body of scientific ideas which help us to begin to understand how and why singing has a positive affect on mental well being. A few of these ideas are explored below.
Singing and its impact on hormone levels
There is some evidence that singing has the affect of lowering levels of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone, and it communicates with the brain region that controls mood, motivation and fear. Children who are experiencing anxiety, stress and trauma, are likely to have elevated levels of this hormone. Reducing levels may therefore give some relief from these symptoms.
On the other hand, singing may stimulate the production of a number of chemical messengers, including dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and oxytocin.
These are the quartet thought to be responsible for our happiness - our body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. Oxytocin helps alleviate anxiety and stress and promotes the feeling of trust and bonding. So we may be able to intentionally raise our level of these feel good chemicals in our body by singing.
Singing and the vagus nerve:
The vagus nerve is known to play a primary role in controlling the nervous system. It has been described as being largely responsible for the mind-body connection. It influences the parasympathetic system - which creates a resting state; and the sympathetic system, which creates the fight, flight, flee response to danger.
The vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords, and it is thought that singing may help tone the vagus nerve. The toning is thought to stimulate the nerve to activate the relaxation response, reducing heart rate and blood pressure. to support a more rested state.
Singing and the breath
Singing requires our breathing to slow and deepen. Deepening and slowing the breathing is a well established technique for creating a calming affect on the body and mind, and it is used extensively in meditation and yoga practices.
Deeper breaths are also thought to have a positive effect in creates a resting state through the vagus nerve. It is thought that as we breath in, sensory nodes on our lungs send information through our vagus nerve to our brain. When we breath out, the brain send information back down the vagus nerve to speed up or slow down our breathing. When we breath more slowly, which happens when we sing, it sends a message to slow our heart rate and we relax.
There are many other benefits to singing for children, and if you are interested in exploring these further, I recommend an article by Professor Graham Welsh "The physical, psychological, musical and educational benefits of singing", on the Sing Up website: