This too shall pass . . .

Post Acute Withdrawal Treatment: The Power of Music

PAWS Symptoms?  Try listening to some music.

PAWS Symptoms? Try listening to some music.

Music has a significant amount of appeal as a treatment for Post Acute Withdrawal – the leading cause of relapse among drug addicts and alcoholics. While often hailed as a method of relaxation and entertainment, music also has the ability to deeply affect people on both an emotional and physical level. This article explores how these powers can be harnessed as part of a treatment program for post acute withdrawal.

Music to Retrain the Survival Response

While many addicts are aware that music they once listened to while getting high can trigger memories, feelings and sensations that could lead to a relapse episode, they’re often not aware that the same processes can be used in reverse to help prevent this same fate.

“Re-conditioning” addresses the survival response mechanism of post acute withdrawal by training the brain to believe that new behaviors are necessary for survival. In order to understand this, you must first understand survival response.

Survival response refers to an evolutionary mechanism designed to promote and encourage behaviors deemed necessary for survival: drinking water, eating, sex, sleeping, shelter procurement, etc. In simple terms, the brain releases “feel good” chemicals into the bloodstream when these types of actions occur, thereafter compelling the behavior in order to “assure survival.”

Unfortunately, the brain is tricked by powerful drugs like heroin and meth and perceives the euphoria a substance causes as a “feel good” substance. This stimulates the reward center of the brain, eventually causing dependence and addiction when the behavior has been sufficiently repeated.

According to health journalist Adam Ramsay, music stimulates these very same processes (1), which means that in theory the brain will naturally seek to reinforce the act of listening to music. In this way symptoms of post acute withdrawal that are related to survival response – usually emotional symptoms – can be suppressed by re-conditioning the survival response to respond to new, healthy and positive stimulus: music.

It’s important to note that the underlying survival response related to addictive behavior still exists but in a state of pressured remission – the pressure being the influence of music. This means that, like all critical components of any recovery program, these positive behaviors must be repeated frequently: a daily recovery program is generally a successful one.

Music to Treat Stress

A primary characteristic of post acute withdrawal is a reduced ability to deal with stress. This is manifested in a wide range of PAWS symptoms including anxiety, depression, anger, isolation, exhaustion, mania, etc. Music has been shown via numerous studies to relieve pressure during what are often intensely stressful events – particularly dental procedures and major surgeries (2), making its power as a stress coping mechanism obvious both clinically and anecdotally.

Many people use music as part of their daily meditations, or simply to listen and relax. Using music in this way can be extremely beneficial, even if we don’t understand all of the scientific processes behind these benefits. For people with post acute withdrawal, any method of stress reduction should be considered, and music is one of the most potent.

Relief from Pain, Sleeplessness and Physical Symptoms

According to Sheryl M. Ness, a RN for the Mayo Clinic‘s Living with Cancer Blog, music reduces the perception of pain and promotes sleep (3). This is important information for sufferers of PAWS symptoms, as physical symptoms often feature pain, headaches, discomfort in joints and soreness in muscles, sleeplessness and other physical symptoms that can pose a significant threat to recovery if unaddressed.

Neuronal activity in the brain changes in response to different types of music, but the overall pain-relieving and sleep-inducing effects can be had simply by making a daily music-playing or music-listening session a part of a larger recovery program. Considering that physical symptoms of post acute withdrawal are often treated medically with yet more potentially addictive or trouble-causing drugs, music is an excellent alternative for pain relief and as a sleep-aid.

Increased Level of Exercise and Activity

Exercise is a potent weapon in the fight against PAWS and all other health conditions, and music can help improve your motivation to become significantly more active and increase your endurance. In fact, in an article on the subject for Men’s Health, Markham Heid writes;

“Music appears to rev up your central nervous system for activity while simultaneously helping to distract your mind from discomfort or difficulty, the research suggests. Expert tip: The research showed fast-paced, energetic music was best for physical activity, and inspirational music that builds to a climax is best for game-time prep.” (4)

What this tells us is that not only can music be used to treat symptoms of post acute withdrawal; different types of music can be used for different purposes. From soft classical music to aid in meditation and relaxation to hard-hitting rock n’ roll designed to get your blood pumping, music is a free and virtually limitless way to improve your life and ward off a potential relapse.




(1) Ramsay, Adam Health Benefits of Music Net Doctor Accessed 01/16/2013

(2) Carr, Coeli Using Music to Ease Patient Stress During Surgery TIME Health & Family 10/13/2009 Accessed 01/16/2013,8599,1929994,00.html

(3) Ness, Sheryl M., RN Turn on the Music and Soothe your Soul Mayo Clinic Living with Cancer Blog 05/11/2011 Accessed 01/16/2013

(4) Heid, Markham 6 Crazy Ways Music Improves Your Life Men’s Health News 12/03/2012 Accessed 01/16/2013

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