Healing Trauma Through Music
When Nancy Lubow, M.A. ’02, began working with 15-year-old Ashley (not her real name), Ashley had severe anorexia. Knowing that Ashley had taught herself to play the guitar and loved singing, Lubow asked her to play a song for a therapy session. Ashley picked Haunted, a break-up song by Taylor Swift, and Lubow taught her how to identify and redirect her emotions and anxiety into understanding and performing her music.
Ashley began to “link the lyrics to a different kind of break up in her own life,” Lubow said, a break up with her eating disorder. “It was a loss that could haunt her, but that she was able to leave behind. Ashley started choosing songs that identified and expressed a wide range of emotions that she had never found acceptable,” Lubow said. “She had sublimated her stress into a creative release … Finding her emotions and thoughts in other people’s songs helped her to identify her own story and find her own voice, within this fragile and vulnerable time of adolescence.”
Through her music, Ashley is overcoming self-destructive behaviors, fighting against “the extremely high recidivism for adolescents with eating disorders,” Lubow said. “She has literally crossed over the life-threatening hold of anorexia. As the grip of her eating disorder fades, a musician is being born.”
Before becoming a music therapist, Lubow worked as a pianist and a piano teacher and developed some research studies on the psychological and emotional benefits of music in her students. “I could help my students to virtually overcome performance anxiety by concentrating on the musical imagery they built,” she said. Music naturally activates imagery in the brain, so she taught her students how to capture the imagery that came to them while listening to recorded performances. Then they would practice with that visual image and do exercises that immersed them in the colors, sensations and emotions of that image while practicing and performing.
Feeling drawn to use the healing potential of music, Lubow enrolled in a graduate music therapy program and then soon transferred to the program at Immaculata “because of Sister Jean [Anthony Gileno], and because her philosophy of music therapy was grounded in the belief that creativity heals.”
Sister Jean Anthony, who created Immaculata’s bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in music therapy, had built these programs on the idea that “music is an expression [of] … the deeper parts of the psyche, and that’s why it’s therapeutic,” Lubow said. Studying piano and improvisation with Music Professor William Carr, DMA, confirmed Lubow’s experience of the calming effects of music. “He helped me experience the valid link between mental health by integrating the technical and emotional skills of learning music,” she said.
With Carr as her advisor, Lubow wrote her master’s thesis about a therapeutic model that used various creative activities to help patients tap their creative brain, achieve greater emotional balance and increase mental resilience. She expanded on this model in her doctoral work at Union Institute and University where her research focused on the neurobiology of trauma and creativity. From these studies, she designed a training manual using creative arts and brain-smart exercises to address the fragmentation of mind, body, and emotions in people exposed to the full range of traumatic events.
“If you want to heal the traumatized mind, you need to get to the parts of the brain that are non-verbal, where the trauma is most often stored. And music has direct access to the imagery and memories that have been sequestered from the verbal mind,” Lubow said. Therapies that focus on talking about painful experiences are often not enough. Victims of trauma cannot always verbally process the abuse or neglect they have endured.
So Lubow developed what she calls BrainsmART psychotherapy, a cross-modal therapy that brings together different modes of perception, such as visual, spatial, verbal, and auditory, and involves them in the creative process. The non-verbal modes help clients access subconscious sensory and emotional memories, and the clients can then use their verbal mode to interpret that information into a meaningful story.
As a result, clients gain a sense of self-empowerment, enabling them to manage their overwhelming sensations and redirect their unhealthy coping mechanisms into rewarding creative action. Lubow says trauma can be immensely disempowering, but she doesn’t focus on that with her clients. “Often that’s just not something we can change. What I focus on is what their strengths are now.”
In addition to working directly with clients, Lubow teaches other clinicians about cross-modal therapies, introducing them to the psychobiology of trauma and creativity and training them to help their clients integrate traumatic experiences into their healthy life stories through the arts. Currently, she is doing webinar trainings for music therapists and counselors eager to understand the integrating impact of cross-modal creative arts on the fragmented mind.
Although music therapy is a wonderful tool for treating trauma, many music therapists have not been educated about how to do this, so Lubow is glad to help fill that need. “Music therapists can become truly center stage to the healing of trauma,” Lubow said. “They have to help clients understand their own brains and work with music that addresses and heals the problem, not just relying on the musical effects that are uplifting, but actually giving the client skills to … learn how to manage their deregulated nervous system and become emotionally balanced and attuned.”
Ashley wants to continue developing her musical skills, so Lubow recently contacted Carr to see if he could recommend some music teachers. When Lubow updated him on the work she has been doing, he said, “Sister Jean Anthony would be so proud of you.”
“She put me on this road,” Lubow said. Sister Jean’s approach, and now Lubow’s, is “to elevate music to its real purpose, which goes beyond performance to healing.”