Drumming therapy can help to reduce anger and tension and increase a sense of wellbeing, writes Dr Nicola Plastow, from the Division of Occupational Therapy, in an opinion article published by Bhekisisa in the Mail & Guardian on 7 March 2016. Read the original article here.
African drumming is one of those activities that I never thought would be meaningful for me. I have no sense of rhythm, I can't hold a beat and theconcept of banging on a piece of skin stretched over wood feels foreign. And yet, when I started doing drumming circles with my final year undergraduate students as part of their group work training in early 2015, I realised how much more energised and less stressed I felt by the end of a session.
The drumming sessions I participated in typically include the rhythmic beating of a variety of different instruments including drums. The lead drummer starts with a few basic rhythms to help everyone get used to the feel of the drum and the sounds that it makes. As everyone gets more comfortable, the speed, volume, and complexity of the rhythms change, and participants interact more with each other by banging on a neighbour's drum, shouting or singing, dancing, or doing a drum solo. The lead drummer might also change the instruments used – anything goes, including whistles, maracas, tambourines, rain sticks or even a tin can filled with rice.
As the session draws to a close, most participants are laughing, interacting with others in the group, and banging their drums enthusiastically. The facilitator then ends off the session by speeding up the rhythm to reach a crescendo, or slowing everything right down for a quiet ending.
As an occupational therapist, one of my core beliefs is that finding things to do that give you meaning and purpose, and where you experience success, can improve your health and sense of well-being by reducing feelings of stress. The problem is that it can be very difficult to find meaningful activities when we are already feeling depressed or anxious. Instead, the stress and worry take over every aspect of our daily lives.
I have included drumming in our occupational therapy curriculum because since 2014 and have been hearing more and more from my colleagues about the amazing effects drumming sessions have on the well-being of people with acute mental health problems who have been admitted to both state and private psychiatric facilities.
Emmé du Toit and Juanita Badenhorst, occupational therapists at Sereno Clinic in Paarl who facilitate drumming sessions with inpatients twice weekly, believe drumming is particularly effective at reducing anger and tension and increasing a sense of well-being among their clients.
Bevil Spence, a drum circle facilitator based in Cape Town, has also seen the benefits of drumming for people in the community. Spence has been leading drumming sessions with healthy adults, corporate groups doing team building, children with autism, older people living in residential homes, and children in schools for more than 15 years.
"Group drumming is a great stress buster," says Spence. "It can be used as a tool to manage stress in a healthy, non-destructive way, which is especially relevant in South Africa, at a time when stress levels are especially high."
The positive effects of drumming that people like Du Toit, Badenhorst and Spence have mentioned are also now being reported in research. A systematic review of the benefits of music activities for people with acute mental health problems like severe depression and anxiety, published in 2013 in the Public Library of Science, found that there is moderate evidence that actively participating in music activities like drumming positively affects mental well-being.
In South Africa, Stellenbosch University researchers led by Professor Carine Smith in the department of physiological sciences investigated whether drumming had a positive effect on hypertension, stress, and anxiety among 35 students and middle-aged adults. The study, published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine in 2014, found drumming to be a moderate intensity exercise that immediately reduces stress and anxiety for both students and the middle-aged adults.
In the division of occupational therapy at Stellenbosch University, we have followed this up with a small pilot study among adults with severe anxiety or depression at one private mental health clinic in the Western Cape.
In our study, due to be published this year, we found that participating in even one drumming session significantly reduces feelings of tension, anger, confusion, depression and fatigue. In addition, it made no difference whether they had any previous exposure to drumming, or were drumming for the first time. Participants also reported that they really enjoyed the drumming sessions.
The most encouraging finding was that the more severely depressed or anxious our participants were, the more they benefitted from drumming. This finding is particularly important because the worse a person's symptoms of anxiety or depression, the harder it is to find activities that they enjoy. This means drumming could also be an effective intervention for those who are not yet able to enjoy doing other therapeutic activities like adult colouring in, crafts, or exercise. Further research is now needed across a variety of different mental health settings to confirm these preliminary findings.
Having done what I can do in a few drumming sessions, rather than worrying about what I can't do, and having done some research of my own, I have come to the conclusion that African drumming has the potential to be a culturally relevant and highly adaptable activity to promote mental well-being – for those of us with acute mental health problems and for those of us feeling stressed at the beginning of the year.