Lets Get Rhythm - Drumming Therapy for Addiction

Drumming Therapy for Addiction


Objectives. This article examines drumming activities as complementary addiction treatments and discusses their reported effects.

Methods. I observed drumming circles for substance abuse (as a participant), interviewed counselors and Internet mailing list participants, initiated a drumming program, and reviewed literature on the effects of drumming.

Results. Research reviews indicate that drumming enhances recovery through inducing relaxation and enhancing theta-wave production and brain-wave synchronization. Drumming produces pleasurable experiences, enhanced awareness of preconscious dynamics, release of emotional trauma, and reintegration of self. Drumming alleviates self-centeredness, isolation, and alienation, creating a sense of connectedness with self and others. Drumming provides a secular approach to accessing a higher power and applying spiritual perspectives.

Conclusions. Drumming circles have applications as complementary addiction therapy, particularly for repeated relapse and when other counseling modalities have failed.

This particular  This particular drumming program related community activities into substance abuse treatment. Often promoted as “Healthy drumming,” these programs are incorporated in major rehabilitation programs, community centres, schools, corporate team building workshops, and prison systems. Although systematic evaluations of the effectiveness of drumming activities are lacking, experiences of counsellors and clients indicate that drumming can play a substantial role in addressing addiction. Evidence suggesting that drumming enhances substance abuse recovery is found in studies on psychophysiological effects of drumming.


This report is based on information acquired from observations of drumming activities in substance abuse programs; interviews with program directors and counsellors about the effects and experiences induced; a program introducing drumming for recovering addicts; and on-line discussions and published material on drumming effects. Because of confidentiality issues, the programs observed did not permit interviews with clients. Clients’ perspectives were provided by the directors and counsellors involved in the program.


Igor Alfimov and Let’s Get Rhythm in Victoria

Participants who are recovering from addiction began drumming as a way to express themselves and become part of a community. They are searching for natural altered states of consciousness. That engagement with drums led to a personal transformation and an involvement with the recovery industry through. We are wanted to expose adolescents in substance abuse treatment to drumming. The counsellors said that these, angry, disenfranchised youth came alive as drumming gave them an avenue of expression. Initially, Igor’s program was closely tied to the therapeutic process. Now, however, we are offered as recreational activity, and use drumming to create healing energy.


Igor’s programs begin with his drumming as people enter the room. They pick up drums and are free to play them as they choose. He then introduces warm-up exercises to make people feel comfortable with the drums, teaching people how to hit the drums without emphasizing anything technical. A vocal and screaming element is introduced to engage the group in coordinated chanting/singing activities to get their energy going.

He allows people to play spontaneously to lay the groundwork for nonverbal communication and asks participants to show how they feel through playing a rhythm on the drums. Igor uses Afrocentric traditions, particularly Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms and the Afro-Caribbean Yoruba-based religions. The gods are used as representations of archetypes to help people access their unconscious dynamics and connect their experiences with spirituality and community.

 Call-and-response activities are used to connect the group. A subsequent activity gives each participant the opportunity to briefly use the drum to express feelings. The group engages in the creation of improvisational music that produces a feeling of great accomplishment and engages a “letting go” process through visualisation.

 Igor ends his, using meditation music and a variety of percussion instruments to reinforce a visualisation process. We work [on] release of guilt from the wreckage that they have produced through their addictions. The visual imagery connects with the inner child, to release baggage, to awaken true potential which covers and embraces them in a space of joy and healing.


The participants enthusiastically receive the drumming. Staff emphasized that the youths particularly need drumming when group dynamics are stressed because of conflict within the group, and when the group’s sense of unity and purpose is disrupted by a client’s relapse to drugs. Let’s Get Rhythm finds that drumming pulls a group together, giving a sense of community and connectedness. We will play drumming games and have a lot of fun.

 The terminal meditation activity induces deep relaxation, eases personal and group tensions, and often leads to strong emotional release. Igor and Let’s Get Rhythm suggests that drumming produces an altered state of consciousness and an experience of a rush of energy from the vibrations, with physical stimulation producing emotional release.

 Because addicted people are very self-centred, are disconnected, and feel isolated even around other people, the drumming produces the sense of connectedness that they are desperate for, we say. “All of us need this reconnection to ourselves, to our soul.

Drums bring this out. Drums penetrate people at a deeper level.

Drumming produces a sense of connectedness and community, integrating body, mind and spirit.

Drumming emphasizes self-expression, teaches how to rebuild emotional health, and addresses issues of violence and conflict through expression and integration of emotions

 Healthy drumming program is designed to induce a spiritual experience that is upbeat, fun and engage the themes of recovery within the dynamics of group drumming.

The gods are used as representations of archetypes to help people access their unconscious dynamics and connect their experiences with spirituality and community. These spiritual experiences connect clients with their “natural selves.”

Physiological Effects of Drumming

Drumming produces a variety of physical and psychological effects. Recently popular book on drumming (Friedman R. Drumming for health. Percussive Notes. April 2001:55–57) reviews research suggesting the positive effects of drumming in the treatment of a wide range of physical conditions, mental illness, and personality disorders. Drumming enhances hypnotic susceptibility, increases relaxation.

 Drumming and other rhythmic auditory stimulation impose a driving pattern on the brain, particularly in the theta and alpha ranges. The enhanced θ- and α-wave entrainment produced by drumming typifies general physiological effects of altered states of consciousness and meditation. ASCs involve a mode of consciousness, a normal brain response reflected in synchronized brain-wave patterns in the theta (3–6 cycles per second [cps]) and alpha (6–8 cps) ranges. This response is produced by activation of the limbic brain’s serotonergic circuits to the lower brain. These slow-wave discharges produce strongly coherent brain-wave patterns that synchronize the frontal areas of the brain with ascending discharges, integrating nonverbal information from lower brain structures into the frontal cortex and producing insight.

Physiological changes associated with ASC facilitate healing and psychological and physiological well-being through physiological relaxation; facilitating self-regulation of physiological processes; reducing tension, anxiety, and phobic reactions; manipulating psychosomatic effects; accessing unconscious information in visual symbolism and analogical representations; inducing interhemispheric fusion and synchronization; and facilitating cognitive–emotional integration and social bonding and affiliation.


Drumming produces physiological, psychological, and social stimulation that enhances recovery processes. Drumming induces relaxation and produces natural pleasurable experiences, enhanced awareness of preconscious dynamics, a release of emotional trauma, and reintegration of self. Drumming addresses self-centeredness, isolation, and alienation, creating a sense of connectedness with self and others. Drumming provides a secular approach to accessing a higher power and applying spiritual perspectives to the psychological and emotional dynamics of addiction. Drumming circles have important roles as complementary addiction therapy, particularly for repeated relapse and when other counselling modalities have failed.

Drumming circles can address multiple needs of addicted populations. These include

  • Physiological dynamics, inducing the relaxation response and restoring balance in the opioid and serotonergic neurotransmitter systems
  • Psychodynamic needs for self-awareness and insight, emotional healing, and psychological integration
  • Spiritual needs and spiritual experiences
  • Social needs for connectedness with others and interpersonal support

Drumming may reduce addiction by providing natural alterations of consciousness. Hand drumming directly supports the introduction of spiritual factors found significant in recovery from substance abuse. Because recidivism is widespread, treatment success may mirror the natural recovery rate, and current methods have little success, the use of drumming and other altered states of consciousness as complementary therapies with considerable promise is justified.

Drumming groups may also aid recovery by enhancing health through their effects on social support and social networks. The health implications of social support have been increasingly recognized. These forms of support are of considerable significance for well-being in an increasingly atomized society in which traditional family and community based systems of support have become seriously eroded. Thus, deliberate enhancement of social support is a potentially significant contributor to physical, emotional, and mental health. The social support available from community drumming circles is one such source. These social effects are not merely palliative but constitute mechanisms for producing psychobiological effects. Central to these effects is an amelioration of the stress response, a significant factor in drug use and recidivism.

The use of drumming as part of substance abuse rehabilitation is far more widespread than the few cases reviewed here might suggest. Incorporation of drumming within Native American treatment programs has been repeatedly mentioned to me. A recent book (Mikenas, ed. Drums, not drugs. Percussive Notes. April1999:62–63. )  reviewing the scope of research on the effects of drumming reports on programs in New York and California in which drumming is incorporated into addictions treatment.

The physiological effects of drumming and the positive effects of group drumming experiences on recovery that are attested to by counsellors who have incorporated these activities into substance abuse rehabilitation programs provide a compelling rationale for the utilization and evaluation of this resource.



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