I have fibromyalgia, endometriosis, myalgic encephalomyelitis, generalized anxiety disorder and an endocrine disorder. I am sore, tired and anxious for many days at a time. I also sing in a choir. According to Charlotte Price Persson, “It may be that enjoyable music can trigger the release of opioids in the brain. Opioids are the body’s own ‘morphine’, which may explain why music can reduce the feeling of pain and the reduced need for pain medication.”
If listening to music can relieve pain, then what might singing do?
I have discovered how to truly benefit from singing in a choir. First there are the benefits of music as mentioned above. Second is the distraction. And third, I have learned that being in a group of people with a common goal can be a way to gain control over my life and over the way I view my body.
Singing in a choir has allowed me to be part of a community, to feel like I belong, and to channel my physical pain into learning and performing music. Being able to take a couple of hours out of my week to blend harmonies with others takes me away from my physical pain and into a place of creativity, beauty and connection. Chronic illness and chronic pain can be extremely isolating. Having a place to go every week where I know I will have fun, work hard and be removed from the physical pain keeps me going when flares are wearing me down.
In 2004, I joined an LGBTQ+ community choir in Toronto, Ontario called Singing Out. The 40-member choir became my home away from home. As of 2020, we are now 120+ members putting on shows, going out into the community to perform and creating a space to belong.
IFL Science wrote:
“The research has often drawn on theories around how nerve impulses in the central nervous system are affected by our thought processes and emotions. Anything that distracts us from pain may reduce the extent to which we focus on it, and music may be particularly powerful in this regard. The beauty is that once we understand how music relates to pain, we have the potential to treat ourselves. Music attracts and holds our attention and is emotionally engaging, particularly if our relationship with the piece is strong. Our favorite music is likely to have stronger positive effects than tracks we don’t like or know. Researchers have demonstrated that the music we prefer has greater positive effects on pain tolerance and perception, reduces anxiety and increases feelings of control over pain.”
Singing in a choir using mindfulness techniques is what shifted my experience of chronic pain and fatigue. Mindfulness means focusing your attention on the present and engaging fully in what you are doing, whether that be washing dishes, drawing, knitting, walking, swimming or singing. Any activity in which you are focused on the moment is mindful. Instead of focusing on how much it hurt to be at rehearsal for 2.5 hours, I began to focus solely on the music and on blending my voice with the people around me. I mindfully participated and gave the music my full attention.
Chronic pain is associated with an over-active amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for the initial emotional response to stimuli). When under stress, the amygdala sends signals to your “reptilian” brain triggering the fight, flight or freeze response. The emotions related to experiencing chronic pain can increase the sensation of pain because of this primitive response.
When not under stress, you can think logically, have better memory, and you are able to regulate your emotions.
In her book “Unlimited Energy Now,” Catherine Carrigan explores how “being stuck operating out of your amygdalae — as opposed to out of the frontal lobes of your brain — is a major cause not only of chronic pain but also chronic exhaustion.” When I am singing mindfully, I am able to reduce the brain fog and reduce my experience of pain by activating other parts of my brain. I am also sending messages to my amygdala that I am safe and happy. According to Carrigan, “If you feel safe, the amygdalae send the signals to your frontal lobes, where you can think logically, produce your own natural antidepressants and anti-anxiety neurotransmitters.”
For these reasons, I have found singing in a choir reduces my pain, increases my concentration skills, creates a sense of belonging, and allows me to feel safe and secure.