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Adele tried sound baths for stress: What are they? Do they help? Experts explain

Listening to singing bowls and gongs causes the body to slow down, reducing stress response, lowering breathing and blood pressure.
Celebrities have been touting the benefits of sound baths. Could the practice work for you?
Celebrities have been touting the benefits of sound baths. Could the practice work for you?TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

In a recent interview with Vogue, Adele discussed her mental health and how she coped during some anxious times.

“It was a lot of sound baths. It was a lot of meditation. It was a lot of therapy. And it was a lot of time spent on my own,” she told the magazine.

While meditation and therapy are certainly well known, sound baths or sound healing have recently become more popular — even though the practice has been around for centuries. But what are sound baths? Can anyone do one?

Sound baths explained:

“It’s an integrative healing technique that uses vibrational instruments to induce relaxation and potentially other pleasurable feelings,” Tamara Goldsby, a research psychologist in the department of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego, told TODAY. “The most common instruments that are used are called singing bowls and those are either metal or a composite of seven metal alloys or crystal quartz and those produce a very unique type of sound.”

Practitioners might also use gongs, tiny cymbals or other instruments that create “a very powerful vibration.”

People might experience a sound bath during yoga or a meditation practice. Some attend sessions that are devoted only to sound healing. The practice can last anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours. During sound baths, people often lay on a mat, in a dimly lit room and listen to the sounds.

Sound baths' impact on stress

Adele is right — sound baths can offer relief. Goldsby has studied them and found that they can help people reduce their stress.

“We found that sound baths elicit the relaxation response and in the relaxation response the body relaxes, the blood pressure lowers, heart rate lowers and the body basically goes into healing mode,” she said. “This is a counter to the fight-or-flight response. People, when they are in chronic stress, they tend to be in fight-or-flight mode.”

Dr. Helen Lavretsky said that sound healing and music therapy have become more popular because they are easy to do. Sound healing simply involves listening to a type of music and doesn’t require people to learn how to do it, such as in yoga or meditation.

“It also has a particular effect on the brain because music or sound healing has a particular vibration,” the professor-in-residence in UCLA’s department of psychiatry, told TODAY. “It’s just one practice, a very ancient practice, that can be part of the portfolio of tools that leads to stress reduction."

Lavretsky conducted a study with caregivers of loved ones with dementia where she had them participate in chanting meditation for 11 minutes. While sound baths do not require participants to do anything but listen, Lavretsky believes it works in a similar way. For the study, participants either listened to music for 11 minutes or participated in chanting meditation. The study found that in just a short amount of time, the caregivers who participated in chanting meditation experienced greater benefits, though the control group did also experience some reduction in their stress levels.

“We documented that this practice for 11 minutes a day reduced stress, improved mental health, reduced depression, improved cognition, brain metabolism,” she said. “It reduced cortisol and also reduced inflammation.”

Theories on why they work

Goldsby’s team plans to conduct more research into sound baths including studying brainwaves, physiological changes and blood for stress biomarkers. But the expert do have a few theories as to why sound baths work.

“The brain has different states, depending on the levels of relations and concentration. So we believe that it’s taking people into a deeper brainwave state and people who are experienced meditators are able to do this on their own,” Goldsby said. “The advantage to sound baths is that you don’t have to learn anything to experience the benefits.”

There’s another way that sound baths might impact the brain.

“It has a particular effect on the brain because the music or sound healing has a particular vibration,” Lavretsky said. “The brain also works with vibrations that’s like how the cells in the brain are oscillating at the frequency. So if you play music in both ears it will have a direct effect on the brain oscillation vibration.”

Both agree that attending a class might provide better benefits than trying it at home.

“You’re not getting the vibration that you get when you’re in person so it’s not going to be the same experience,” Goldsby said.

What’s more, resting beside others who are also experiencing vibrations intensifies the experience.

“In a class there are many more bodies than just yours. They start vibrating at that frequency and generally create this field of relaxation,” Lavretsky said.

While it seems as if a sound healing class would be relaxing, Lavretsky said that her research into the 11 minutes of chanting meditation showed the value of people stepping away from their lives. She thinks that people could easily integrate sound baths or some sort of relaxing music practice into their daily routines and they’d feel relief.

“If it’s slow music and you’re relaxing by nature your breath will slow down. It’s a response of the autonomic nervous system. When it starts to be activated everything comes down, including breathing rate and heart rate and blood pressure,” Lavretsky said. “Everybody can do five minutes a day, or even better 10 minutes or longer … Once it becomes a habit, you know it’s your safe place to come.”

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