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Grateful Medicine

August 20, 2014

Even though I was just over 4-feet tall, I still remember sitting on the trolley with my Dad on the way home from my first Grateful Dead show. Everyone else riding the train with us had been to the show and we were all smiling, laughing, and talking about how perfect "Uncle John's Band" was during the second set. And when the train got stuck for 20 minutes in a tunnel somewhere deep under the Boston Common, nobody cared because they werehaving a high time living the good life.

Associated puns aside, there’s something magical about going to a Grateful Dead show. Simply put—the people, the music, and the environment make everyone feel good. As a clinical psychiatrist, I am always fascinated by experiences that draw out strong emotions and many of the folks that I work with are down, nervous, or otherwise struggling.But no matter how challenging a person’s situation might be, I’ve never had a patient who held back a smile when The Grateful Dead came up in the office.

From the time that you hop in the car to drive to the concert, you and your show-buddies are already feeling better, singing tunes on the way up, and feeling fantastic with each other. When you get into the venue, you're dancing all the way in even before you reach stage and that’s before the euphoria of finally seeing the band themselves. Feeling at peace with your fellow concert-goers and munching a veggie burrito is a generally wonderful experience and all of a sudden you’ve forgotten the day’s aggravations, your systemic stress levels decrease, and your spiritual battery gets the chance to recharge from the frustrations of daily living.This experience of wellness—the inner peace, the positive sense-of-self, and the ability to shrug off stress—lasts in a person’s body even after the show is over.Perhaps this is what makes a Grateful Dead shows a form of medicine.And while the Grateful Dead are long gone, their successors—whether Phil Lesh & Friends, Furthur, or another similar incarnation—have the same healing powers.

As lots of the medications that physicians prescribe have complicated side effects—and many individuals are either uninterested or unwilling to try them— doctors have become increasingly open to other forms of treatment called Complementary and Alternative Medicine. This extends beyond the recommendations for maintaining a healthy and sober lifestyle, getting regular exercise, and eating a well-rounded diet with enough Vitamin D, Folate, B12, and Omega-3 Fatty Acids.Many physicians—including psychiatrists such as myself—regularly recommend mindfulness activities to their patients.Mindfulness is a type of spiritual-emotional-physical exercise that involves relaxing the mind to decrease systemic stress and its harmful effects on the brain and body.When doctors teach their patients mindfulness, I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that they are helping others experience the same sense of personal harmony that some people get at a Grateful Dead show.

This relaxing feeling of personal harmony that a Deadhead finds at a concert has been researched in scientific laboratories across the world. Major medical institutions have invested millions of dollars in teaching their patients how to find inner peace at places like The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Harvard Medical School. That's because it works!

Too much stress and a lack of self-fulfillment are associated with mental health problems, problematic substance abuse, and early death from medical illness. Nobody likes commuting back and forth to work, picking up an extra shift to pay off their college loans, or finding a parking ticket on their car. The scary news is that this stuff can actually kill a person by causing stress which increases systemic inflammation and impairs the immune system.Stress has been shown to directly exacerbate diseases like hypertension, depression, and diabetes. So if taking scheduled time off from work and engaging in mindfulness activities are some of the greatest remedies for a stressful burnout, then it’s not unreasonable to suggest that for some people, frequent Grateful Dead shows might be the mini-vacations that keep us healthy and sane.

Scientific researchers have shown that mindfulness and associated practices—including Tai-Chi, Yoga, and going to Grateful Dead Shows—directly improve both medical and mental health. Patients with crippling asthma who do Tai-Chi each week require fewer medications to treat their illness and experience less panic attacks. Someone who has suffered a heart attack that does daily yoga exercises will live longer and is less likely to develop clinical depression. Having peace of mind decreases stress and helps people to live happier and healthier lives.

This being said…can one prove the medical benefit of partaking in a Grateful Dead concert experience? When pondering this question, I'm reminded of the package for my favorite yerba mate tea that reads, "Drinking this tea has been traditionally known to improve focus, increase energy and general sense of well being although these findings have not been evaluated by the US-FDA." To the best of my knowledge, The United States Food and Drug Administration is not currently studying the effects of hearing a live version of China Cat SunfloweràI Know You Rider.But in spite of this, anyone who's seen a show can attest to positive health benefits of the experience.

And for those who doubt that there will ever be scientific data capturing the exact biochemical effects of a Grateful Dead concert…as Jerry would say, “I don’t know, don’t really care, let there be songs to fill the air.”

***

Jacob L. Freedman, MD, is a board-certified psychiatrist practicing in Boston, Massachusetts, and an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine. He is a lifelong Grateful Yid and can be most easily reached at: JacobLFreedman@gmail.com.

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