Using Sound Therapy to Help Clients Achieve Deep Relaxation
This article was written by:
La Terra Jackson | NCS, CLC, CIMT, BA Psychology and Human Development and
Laura Shiff | Copywriter
Published on February 15, 2019
Helping mothers deliver their babies safely and successfully is one of the main goals for perinatal support professionals, and keeping them as comfortable as possible throughout the process is a close second. While it is vital we constantly stay up-to-date with the latest practices, it is also important that we balance evidence-based strategies with more mind-body approaches, providing a variety of options for all clients.
Recently, I was lucky enough to attend a training on the use of sound as therapy led by Latham Thomas, founder of Mama Glow, a lifestyle brand and highly regarded website and women’s center in Brooklyn, New York. Through the use of sacred sound, Latham Thomas is forging a new path, leading a revolution in both maternal and child health.
Western Medicine Shortcomings
Each year in the United States, about 700 to 1,200 women die from pregnancy or childbirth complications, with racial differences highly evident. Women of color are still exponentially more likely to die while giving birth, with the risk of pregnancy-related deaths for black women 3 to 4 times higher than those of white women.
However, this is not always the case around the world. For example, the Shanti Uganda Birth House in Uganda has provided midwife services to thousands of women and yet has never lost a mom during childbirth. None. The numbers of maternal mortality rates in Great Britain are so low, in fact, that the journal Lancet recently stated that “a man is more likely to die while his partner is pregnant than she is.”
So what makes the United States, a highly developed and medically trained country, so different?
It turns out that the answer is a complex one: new mothers are older than they used to be; increased numbers of C-sections also increase the chance of life-threatening complications; chronic health issues aren’t always addressed before pregnancies, especially if the pregnancy is unplanned; poor health insurance can prevent mothers from getting the proper care they need; and the reasons go on and on.
The sharp contrast to these alarming statistics is that infant mortality rates are at their lowest point in history, decades of effort that is worth celebrating, but with the extreme focus on the infant, are new mothers being left behind?
Women Helping Women
This is where women like Latham Thomas come in.
Named one of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul 100, an enlightened group of leaders elevating humanity with their work, Latham’s mission is to empower women to educate themselves and fully embrace their voices and their rights during pregnancy and labor. Her Doula Immersion program is globally recognized and attended by women from all over the world, offering inspiration, advocacy, education, and holistic services for mothers.
Her partner, Sara Auster, is also changing the way professionals and mothers approach the birthing process. Trained as a sound therapist, meditation teacher, and artist, Sara is a notable leader in the wellness community and has worked with brands including SONOS, Goop, and Saje Wellness. Also using a holistic approach to well-being, Sara focuses on the transformative powers that sound offers, creating carefully crafted experiences that make meditation a tool and a therapy, especially useful for deep relaxation states during labor.
These two as a combined force are proving that we have come to a time where mothers and perinatal assistance professionals are seeking out support through a variety of channels and methods, utilizing different resources to ensure optimal health and wellbeing. One of these is sound therapy.
An Introduction to Sound Therapy
For thousands of years, sound has been used in cultures around the world as a tool for healing. Whether through mantras, drums, or other instruments, sound can bring balance and wholeness to the body, providing a type of escape from the present moment.
The key to sound therapy is entrainment. Entrainment is a natural phenomenon in which repetitive frequencies and rhythms cause our brainwaves to enter into a specific state. By facilitating this shift, it becomes possible to go from the normal waking consciousness (beta) to the relaxed consciousness (alpha) and even potentially meditative (theta) and sleep (delta) states.
Sound therapy is one of many tools that doulas and perinatal support professionals are becoming more familiar with that encourages mothers to enter into a state of deep relaxation and rejuvenation. Through the use of crystal singing bowls, tuning forks, and the simple powers of the voice, caregivers can provide a safe and relaxing environment for birthing mothers and their baby, who can perceive sound in utero as early as nine weeks.
The Evidence-Base for Sound Therapy
There have been many studies conducted over the years to support the use and effectiveness of sound therapy for variety of purposes, including relaxation, pain management, and anxiety reduction. Some of the more common tools used in sound therapy research include vocal toning, singing bowls, and tuning forks.
Toning is a form of vocalizing that uses the voice to make certain sounds. These can range from cries, groans, and grunts to simply hums or vowel sounds on the exhale of the breath.
In one controlled study, researchers gathered and analyzed descriptive data based on interviews with participants. Results indicated that shifts in attention, awareness, and consciousness frequently occurred when individuals engaged in toning. Findings also suggested that the vibrations of one’s own voice likely contributed to the success in inducing altered states.
Singing bowls are a type of bowl that vibrates and creates a deep, rich tone when played. Commonly referred to as Tibetan singing bowls or Himalayan bowls, these instruments are often used during sound baths to promote relaxation and meditation.
Two controlled trials have been conducted on treatment with singing bowls. The first study evaluated treatment with crystal singing bowls for chronic spinal pain. For the study, participants were assigned to groups of singing bowl therapy, a placebo treatment, or no treatment at all.
Results showed that members of the singing bowl and placebo groups experienced a significant decrease in pain intensity as well as reduced stress, however, the authors concluded that singing bowl therapy’s effectiveness for pain relief could not be confirmed.
The second controlled study was an analysis of the physiological and psychological effects of a Himalayan singing bowl in meditation practice. Overall, the study found that Tibetan singing bowl meditation may be a feasible low-cost low technology intervention for reducing feelings of tension, anxiety, and depression, and increasing spiritual well-being.
Tuning forks are steel instruments that vibrate at a specific pitch when struck. The use of tuning forks appear to stimulate certain relaxation responses in the body, believed to be due in part to the biological process of Nitric Oxide (NO) release in the body. According to experts, NO appears to be released in the presence of certain music and sounds, and it is an important molecule that signals our cells to relax.
Ongoing research into the relationship between sound and nitric oxide by George Stefano, Ph.D. and John Beaulieu, N.D, Ph.D. has led them to believe that using the Otto 128 tuning fork prompts the body to release nitric oxide which in turn relieves pain. By utilizing this instrument during the birthing process, support professionals can help mothers get into a state of relaxation as well as help manage their pain.
How Can Sound Therapy Be Effective?
While it can be suggested that Western medicine has a gender problem, as a whole, wellness and birth have an inclusion problem. So often diverse bodies and modalities are left out of the conversation, including diverse sounds, and it is necessary that we recognize this issue and continue to evolve practices and ensure they are meeting the needs of a changing audience. Women, and especially women of color, need to feel like they are being lifted up and listened to, no longer left behind to be another statistic.
Through her work, Latham Thomas is adding some missing links to the circle, like space for women to use their bodies’ own instruments to help open their womb and deliver a baby. Her trainings and programs are giving women permission to birth organically, to take up space and to sound like a woman in childbirth, helping them embrace their sound and feel empowered. It is also helping caregivers know how to fully support and encourage this in mothers, as well.
Latham also reaches back to wisdom from mind-body practices all over the world, speaking to the true makeup of the birth community rather than the stylized images we’ve been fed. Latham’s philosophy is unprocessed, it makes room for a sort of raw wildness that manages to feel true and safe and kindred all at once.
Sara’s utilization of sound provides alternative ways of pain management outside of conventional medicines, and she shows support professionals that all we need is our voice to help mothers through the birth process if necessary. Her practices offer new ways of supporting clients through pregnancy and birth, and encourage deep states of relaxation and mindfulness.
My Own Experience
While the use of sacred sound during and after the birthing process has obvious advantages for helping mothers relax, I found that the therapy also proved beneficial for my own self-care and practice, as well.
As a woman, making sounds that are not pretty feels uncomfortable, loudness feels uncomfortable. Throughout the training I often found myself hiding in the harmony of the whole group, trying not to stand out or take up too much space. However, both Latham and Sara encouraged us to fully open the jaw in order for the rest of the body to relax. As this is the best way for the baby to move down the birth canal, I loosened up and embraced my vocalizations.
Mind-body tools remind us that we are affecting other bodies; our counsel and interactions have psychological repercussions. I can slow a speeding heart, steady shaking hands, deepen a breath of surrender, and my voice is the only tool I need. The other tools- gong, tuning fork, drone, crystal singing bowls, warm blankets, and crystal pyramid- they all amplify the therapy for deeper reach.
I left class feeling like a skyscraper. It is such a gross understatement to say I came away lifted. My gait felt lighter and my heart open. Working from a research-oriented perspective can slant us against mind-body practices that rely on the individual to surrender in order to witness their validity. By attending this training, and learning from the amazing Latham Thomas and Sara Auster, I can honestly say I am excited to further my education on a variety of methods and I can’t wait to incorporate them into my practice.
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