In April 2019, 1,790 people texted the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Disaster Distress Helpline. In April 2020, that number skyrocketed to nearly 20,000. The Pew Research Center reports that one-third of Americans have experienced high levels of psychological destress during the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent large-scale community lockdowns. And a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation saw a jump in adults reporting that the coronavirus has had a negative effect on their mental health. In early March, it was 32 percent; only two weeks later it was 45 percent.
Across every demographic, Americans are struggling with their mental health — and their “solutions” are often part of the problem.
“The way your brain works is when you’re stressed, it craves to relieve that stress. And it doesn’t think about what’s good for you or bad for you,” Tim Ringgold said on a recent episode of “The Business Innovators Radio Podcast.” “It just thinks of what scratches the itch in the moment. And so we reach for food, for beer, for wine — or worse.”
Ringgold, a board-certified music therapist in Orange County, CA, and director of Sonic Divinity, LLC, specializes in providing music therapy to teens and adults in residential treatment. He is also the author of “Sonic Recovery: Harness the Power of Music to Stay Sober” and host of the new podcast “Reduce Your Stress with Tim Ringgold.” The podcast came out of a stressful health situation that inspired Ringgold to do what he’s done for years: turn to music to help himself and others.
“In early March, I spent a couple of days in Washington, DC and saw empty hotels, empty airports, empty planes. And that’s when I caught the fear of COVID-19,” he said. “I came home and I didn’t wash my hands before I dug in my eye to scratch an itch — and just that day I was in the airport watching a PSA about making sure you don’t put your hands in your nose or your mouth or your eyes because that’s how you get the disease. And there I was, finger in my eye, convinced I gave myself COVID-19.”
Ringgold went into a two-week self-quarantine. “And one night I picked up my guitar in my garage and just had a thought: I’m going to go on Facebook Live and arrange something peaceful. And I just called it ‘Something to Comfort You,’” he said. “It was an old piece of music that I rearranged on the fly and I thought, ‘that was fun.’ And so I did it the next night. And the next night. I did it every night for 40 nights in a row. And people started to set a reminder so they’d know when I’d go live. On the East Coast they’d fall asleep to my music. On the West coast they’d cook to it. I had no idea that this would take off.”
At first, Ringgold wanted to release a set of albums that he’d donate to healthcare workers worldwide, but he decided that a weekly podcast would better serve those he wants to reach.
“With a podcast I can deliver new music weekly, and I can get it in their ears now. Healthcare workers have to commute into work, so they’re going to listen to this podcast on their commute in, and it’s going to relax their nervous system so they can show up powerfully for the people they serve,” Ringgold said. “But then they can listen to it on the commute home, and then it turns off the stress response a second time, and now they can show up peacefully for the people they love.”
Ringgold’s music outreach is not intended to shame those who reach for alcohol, drugs, or other coping mechanisms during the pandemic; instead, he wants to provide an effective, healthy alternative.
“There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not weak. You don’t have poor moral fiber. Your nervous system has you reach for stuff when you get stressed,” he said. “When you reach for music, it costs way less. There are no unhealthy side effects. And it issues the same pleasure response and turns off the stress response.”
Music, Ringgold said, has largely the same effect on the brain as many of the other self-soothing strategies people use. “When you listen to music you enjoy, your stress response turns off; your nervous system shifts gears. Everybody who’s felt stressed or sad or angry and then hears their favorite song — it’s instantaneous. They notice the shift before the song is even over,” he said. “The music just accepts them. It’s not upset that they feel sad or depressed. Music accepts you exactly the way you are, and just plays for you. Nothing else does that.”
About Tim Ringgold: Tim Ringgold is Director of Sonic Divinity Music Therapy Services and the author of “Sonic Recovery: Harness the Power of Music to Stay Sober.” A board-certified music therapist, Tim’s mission is to empower people to reach for music during times of stress. He has spent more than a decade educating audiences on the power of music in managing stress and supporting those in recovery. His new podcast, “Reduce Your Stress with Tim Ringgold,” is available wherever podcasts are found.