One summer evening last term Al and I got talking about my job and I was pleased to be able to tell him about some of the therapeutic and psychological benefits to children learning drumming.
To my surprise Al’s eyes did not glaze over and he was keen to understand some of my psychotherapy nerdiness in relation to his passion for drumming and he asked me if I would write this blog post. I am by day (well, an all-consuming 24 hours actually) a child psychotherapist and Director for Your Space Therapies; a school psychotherapy and counselling service working in schools in West Sussex and the surrounding counties.
I tend to work with children who are in long term foster care or post adoption and their families; these children will have suffered a significant amount of trauma. I also provide training and consultancy for families and professionals regarding children’s mental health and lecture at The Institute for Arts and Therapy in Education.
My son Oakley, age 8, started drumming lessons with Al in the spring, last academic year. When Oakley declared he would like to be a drummer I was excited to encourage his naturally creative spirit but also to seize the opportunity to do some more work on wiring his brain in the most emotionally robust and resilient way possible (I realise I am now sounding a little like Dr. Frankenstein!)
So, how does that happen you may be wondering; let me explain: The hippocampus (fun word to say, try it!) which is responsible for storing hyper-alert emotional memories sits just behind the amygdala in the brains limbic system (emotional centre of the brain). The hippocampus is responsible for producing cortisol, a stress hormone. As a side note, when you have too much cortisol you crave eating sugar and carbs (your body is getting fuelled up ready to defend/fight), one of the reasons some of us (maybe me) lived on curly wurleys and wine during lockdown, oh, and why the country ran out of pasta!
Anyway…….If we experience repetitive traumas or harrowing events, our hippocampus creates a huge amount of cortisol and when we are triggered by stress a very difficult cycle begins which leaves us relating to others mostly in ‘fight, flight and freeze’. These are primal reactions, generated from the brain stem, which leave us reacting to stressful situations in impulsive, unprocessed and often destructive ways; this often looks like tantrums in children, in the psychotherapy field we call this ‘emotional dysregulation.’
As babies we are born reliant on ‘fight, flight, freeze’ communications from the lower cortex of our brains and it takes healthy relational and emotional experiences with ‘secure attachment figures’ to ensure our brains wire in healthy ways and neuron-pathways grow towards the pre-frontal cortex of our brains where we can calm, rationalise, communicate well, hope, learn and dream. In order to create the ability to have and maintain good emotional regulation and use of our pre-frontal cortex, we have to train our brains to be able to regulate stress and counter-act the over-production of cortisol by creating other brain chemicals, namely opioids, oxytocin and dopamine. We MUST to do this within a healthy relationship with secure attachment foundations (the first experience of this is hopefully with our birth parents).
So, how do drumming lessons come into this? Here goes….. Bi-lateral stimulation: When the body moves repetitively and rhythmically left to right, ‘bi-lateral stimulation’ occurs. During this process the brains neuron-pathways move memory from the hippocampus to the pre-frontal cortex where they are processed in a more rational way. In a sense it creates the ability to look through the window at worries and stress rather than feel stress with overwhelming intensity. It also trains our brains to create a reasonable amount of cortisol and calm down quicker after stress.
I think you’ll agree, everyone could do with a bit of bi-lateral stimulation to achieve this (rather than relying on Maltesers); as drummers, kids are doing this in a creative (cool) way by performing their focussed, repetitive, left-right beats.
The production of opioids, dopamine, oxytocin: These fundamental brain chemicals are created by experiences of shared joy and empathy (opioids and oxytocin) and invitations for seeking, new experiences and adventure (dopamine), all of which are actively offered during drumming lessons. When these three chemicals flow strongly in the brain due to experiencing these relational qualities, they act as a catalyst for neuron pathway growth from the brains stress response system and towards the pre-frontal cortex; basically, building a pathway towards rational management of stress rather than a fight/flight/freeze response (this is why play, joy and empathy are vital components in child therapy). When children have regular and consistent opportunities to create these chemicals they are well equipped to learn, manage stress and live their best lives! In a nutshell these chemicals are the magical elixir for making us feel content and that all is well in our world.
Secure attachment relating: As well as drumming, Oakley loves to chat to Al, and Al is extremely patient in responding to ‘the boy of a million questions’ (as my family sometimes call him!) with compassion, empathy and interest. This is a ‘secure attachment’ way of relating that fundamentally helps the child to feel safe, seen, nurtured and significant. It is essential we surround children with empathic adults, who can do this genuinely well (thanks Al!) I hope you found my musings on this subject interesting; thank you for indulging my passion for this subject! To conclude; keep the kids drumming, with safety, shared joy and creativity at the centre of their learning and you won’t only be listening to some awesome beats, but supporting their brains to develop and function in the most life-fulfilling, emotionally robust way possible!