Making Work, Work

How to use music as a stress management tool for lawyers

Stress is often cited as one of the unpleasant side effects of a successful career in the legal industry. Research in 2016 suggested that 63% of those surveyed thought law was more stressful than any other profession. Perhaps unduly biased but the fact remains that LawCare, the charity providing information and support to anyone in the legal community experiencing mental health and well-being problems, reports that by far the most common reason for calls to their helpline is stress.

There are many reams dedicated to the consideration of why this might be, including endemic issues with the structure and common practices of the legal world, including the expectation of long hours in pressurised situations. It is also suggested that those motivated to work in the legal sector by their very nature have a personality type that is perfection-seeking or very driven and/or that lawyers and other staff like to be in control – and when they are not, this causes stress.

Whatever the root problem, we know that stress can cause extreme physical and emotional debilitating symptoms that can at the very least can be disruptive to both work and personal life.

Music and the brain

Researchers at Stanford University have found that music can affect the brain in surprising ways. Scientists at Stanford in 2006 suggested that “rhythmic music may change brain function and treat a range of neurological conditions”.

“It’s too easy to forget how fundamental rhythm is in so many things and how important musical rhythm can be,” says Patrick Suppes, former Lucie Stern Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, at Stanford, who studies brainwaves and language cognition.

Further research at Stanford in 2007 showed that “music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating the event in memory”.

“The study suggests one possible adaptive evolutionary purpose of music,” said Jonathan Berger, PhD, associate professor of music and a musician who is another co-author of the study. “Music engages the brain over a period of time, he said, and the process of listening to music could be a way that the brain sharpens its ability to anticipate events and sustain attention”.

5 ways to use music to manage stress

#1 Pick a song to change your mood

Make yourself a soundtrack or a playlist that reflects how you’d like to feel – don’t listen to music which reflects your current mood. For example, Spotify did a study with Cambridge University psychologist David Greenberg where they found that a ‘wake up’ song needs to “start gently (even for just a few seconds) and then build”, the idea being that it will gradually lift you out of your grumpy mood and into a positive one.

To decrease anxiety, try listening to Weightless by Marconi Union (below). According to Dr. David Lewis-Hodgson of Mindlab International Weightless is the song that produced the highest reduction in anxiety in a study carried out on the effects of music and anxiety that “resulted in a striking 65 percent reduction in participants’ overall anxiety, and a 35 percent reduction in their usual physiological resting rates”. Dr. Lewis-Hodgson warned against listening to the song whilst driving – perhaps try Adele or Coldplay instead, which both featured on the list Mindlab released of the top ten relaxing songs.

#2 Listen to uplifting dance music

Stress coupled with winter viruses can leave you feeling like there is no time for anything and that you are always playing catch up. While it might feel counter-intuitive, spending an hour listening to uplifting dance music is not a waste of time at all.

In 2008, scientists from Sussex University and the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany found that “after listening to just 50 minutes of uplifting dance music, the levels of antibodies in volunteers’ bodies increased”. They also found that “levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, decreased significantly in those listening to the dance music compared to the control group”.

#3 Dance it out

Give your body a double whammy of a boost in endorphins (which are the body’s natural painkillers) and improve your sleep, which in turn will have an effect on stress levels, by dancing/moving in a way that raises your heartbeat at the same time.

Personal preference will dictate whether this is in a fitness class, such as Zumba or spinning, by going to a nightclub (just don’t ruin it by drinking heavily) or just a dance party in your kitchen. The key is not just the uplifting dance music or the exercise but combining them both with doing something distracting to help reset your brain.

#4 Take time out

Take your lunch hour and go to a concert. If you work in a city there are plenty of lunchtime concerts. We like the sound of the 40-minute Friday lunchtime concerts at Bishopsgate Institute which are back from 22 November 2019 – you can even bring your lunch to eat whilst you listen. The series of nine concerts will cover a range of musical genres, from the traditional to the unexpected, including drums & electronics and harp (Keziah Thomas, below). Make it a fast-paced walk in daylight there and back and you’ll also be contributing to increased sleep, which will help with both increasing performance and reducing sleep.

#5 Reduce your blood pressure

One of the symptoms of stress is a racing heart and increased blood pressure. Everyone who works in law will be familiar with the creeping feelings of your heart thumping and blood pressure rising particularly when faced with situations that are not entirely or at all within our control, particularly things like delays to a commute or the actions of colleagues. If you can listen to classical or calming music with a slow tempo you may be able to revert to your normal resting state far quicker.