Hallelujah! Caroling Is Good for Your Health
You don't need a good voice to reap the benefits of singing on body and mind.
Stacy Horn had hit rock bottom.
The New York City telecommunications worker was in her
late 20s and everything was going wrong. She was going through a
divorce, stuck in a job she hated and suffering from anxiety. To cope, she dated the wrong guys, drank too much and generally engaged in other self-destructive behaviors. “If it was a bad idea, I was doing it,” says Horn, now 58. So when Horn found herself sobbing on
her apartment's living room floor, it was somewhat of a miracle the
memory that popped into her head was a healthy one: “Luckily, I just
remembered that time singing,” she says, referring to a high school Christmas concert she participated in on a whim.
That memory was all the motivation Horn needed to go
church door to church door in Manhattan until she secured a spot with
the Choral Society at Grace Church, where she still sings today.
“I just thank God that I didn’t run,” says Horn, now a
(much happier and healthier) writer in the same New York City apartment.
“When you sing a masterpiece, you literally become that masterpiece.
You are reverberating this great work of art. It’s coming from within
your body, and it feels great.”
Not only does singing feel great, it is great for
body and mind. Studies have linked group singing with the release of
feel-good hormones like oxytocin, which can amp up tolerance for pain;
and the reduction of stress-related hormones like cortisol, which can boost immune system function.
Busting out your best rendition of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" has cognitive, social and emotional benefits, too.
Most simply, singing with others – be it
professionally, regularly in a choir or only once a year with
your neighborhood carolers – is just plain fun, says H. Steven Sims, an
otolaryngologist and director of the Chicago Institute for Voice Care.
"There is absolutely neuroscience behind some of this,
but I think in general, singing just makes people feel better,” says
Sims, a former director of Yale University's Gospel Choir who also plays
trombone, bassoon and piano. "It’s a form of expression that allows
creativity and emotion to be packaged up nicely in a tune."
‘A Full-Body Experience’
Paul Nasto, a composer and music director in Fairfax,
Virginia, compares singing to sports. Just like baseball players assume a
particular stance when they step up to the plate, singers take on a
particular posture before belting a tune. That’s because, when done
right, singing engages the whole body – and can help keep it fit.
“Singing properly is a full-body experience – it goes
from the toes all the way to your nose,” Nasto says. “Keeping those
muscles toned and in shape so that you can produce your best sound is a
great way of helping you to stay in shape and healthy.”
The reverse is also true: Taking care of your voice
means taking care of your body, Sims says. The same advice he gives
patients for voice care in the winter – eat well, wear a hat and scarf
outside, avoid smoke, get plenty of rest and stay hydrated, to name a
few – “cross the lines and are more universal for just taking good care
Singing confers a lot the benefits we see from yoga,
says Kate Hays, a psychologist in Toronto and founder of the sport and
performance psychology consulting practice The Performing Edge.
“Deep and diaphragmatic breathing … not only has all the
psychological benefits that we know about, but also serves to calm to
the mind and allow one to focus,” she says. “The message of present
focus that is so intrinsic to yoga I think translates directly to
singing and performing.”
Singing as Medicine
The physical benefits of singing go deeper.
In one of Horn’s favorite studies,
published in 2004 in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers
measured choir members' immune function before and after a rehearsal by
taking a swab of their saliva. They found that singing boosted their
immune function and mood, while just listening to the music didn't. The
kicker? The choir was singing Mozart’s “Requiem” – an infamously sullen
piece. “Even singing about death is good for you,” says Horn, author of
“Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Others.”
Singing also appears to increase pain tolerance by releasing endorphins. A 2012 study published in
Evolutionary Psychology probed whether that effect is more attributable
to listening to music or performing it. Researchers' findings supported
the latter, concluding that singing – as well as drumming and dancing –
boosted participants' threshold for pain whereas just listening to
music or engaging in another type of group activity like a nonmusical
religious service didn’t. Singing also boosted mood, the study found.
That comes as no surprise to Horn, who’s attended choir
rehearsals after family, friends and pets have died. “Whatever mood I’m
in when I walk into a choir rehearsal … I will always walk out feeling
better,” she says. “So the fact that the body releases all of these
chemicals that have to do with managing stress and relieving anxiety
just [don’t] surprise me because my experience confirms that.” Greater Than the Sum of the Parts
Caroling with a group, too, has benefits over belting "All I Want for Christmas Is You" while baking cookies alone. One study presented last
year at the British Psychological Society Division of Clinical
Psychology annual meeting in York found that singers report high levels
of well-being similar to members of sports teams, but people who sing
in choirs reported even higher well-being than those who sing alone.
That makes sense, since social connectedness is “one of
the major aspects of mental and physical health,” says Hays, who sings
with the Orpheus Choir of Toronto. “To feel a sense of a connection with
others has been tied to decreased physical health problems, increased
sense of well-being, decreased depression, you name it.”
The best news? You don’t even have to be a good singer to reap the benefits. One 2005 study
in the journal Psychology of Music studied a homeless men’s choir and
concluded that “singing and performance, at the most amateur levels of
musicality, yielded considerable emotional, social and cognitive
benefits,” the researchers wrote.
“The benefit comes from getting out and doing something
with other people,” rather than from singing like an angel, Sims says.
“I think the fun and enjoying it and being around some other folks is
worth being off-pitch a little bit.”
Reprinted from US News & World Report