5 Ways Dancing Can Help with Depression and Anxiety
Have you seen this campaign advertisement at In-N-Out Burger?
My daughter and I hit up In-N-Out Burger today for some lunch after her half-day of school. The fast food joint had these posters hanging up on the walls and lining our trays of juicy burgers and fries. (Sorry, ballerina model for dripping spread sauce all over your face.) But good for them, I say, for bringing awareness to substance abuse, particularly among teens. I hope their efforts make a difference, even if in a small way. Of course, this ad hit home for me, being a dance studio owner, as I have devoted my life’s work not just to teaching dance but to pouring into the youth of our community. While ballerinas, and dancers in general, are definitely not exempt from addictions or the related disorders of depression and anxiety that often lead to substance abuse, the good news is that there is much evidence that taking dance classes improves mental health!
Here are 5 reasons why:
1. Dancing Releases “Happy” Brain Chemicals.
It is well known that exercise causes our brains to release dopamine (the neurotransmitter known for pleasure, reward, and bonding) as well as endorphins, which oddly enough have a similar reaction in our bodies as opiod drugs, reducing the effects of pain and stress.
Ask any runner, and they will tell you all about the “runner’s high” they get after a great workout. But, if you are like me, putting on those running shoes and going for a jog is not something I’m very motivated to do. Anyone with me? Kudos to those who actually enjoy running. I’d rather put on my dancing shoes (or go barefoot) and get my exercise on the dance floor.
Surprisingly, these results have been shown to have a lasting effect on one’s mood. According to a study performed by Psychology Professor Peter Lovatt at University of Hertfordshire, these raised levels of “happiness,” so to speak, were elevated for up to a week after dance class!
2. Listening and Moving to Music is Therapeutic.
I think it is safe to say that most dance classes involve music as an accompaniment to movement. For those of us who have taken ballet class with a live pianist, you will know that nothing compares to the feeling of dancing to live music. But even music played off of an iPod touches the soul at a level that other things cannot. There is a reason that music therapy exists and has been proven to reduce depression. Whether it is an upbeat pop hit or an emotional ballad, being able to express your own feelings through movement and music is incredibly powerful.
3. Working Hard and Achieving a Goal is Satisfying.
Raise your hand if you started the new year with a resolution or goal? Did you achieve it, or did you give up? We may be hard on ourselves when we fail to implement a new habit, but think about a time that you worked hard and were committed to learn a new skill or gain that promotion. How good did that feel?? I hope you gave yourself props or celebrated in some way.
Dancers get this feeling on a regular basis as they attempt new skill after new skill and progress in their training. It feels amazing to see your hard work pay off as you nail that triple pirouette or land that aerial for the first time. It provides that same euphoric feeling and chemical-release of dopamine in the brain that improves mood and even your overall outlook on life. There is a beautiful cycle that takes place as the very dopamine that is produced when you achieve a goal actually acts as a motivator to work towards the next goal.
4. Dance Class Gives You a Sense of Belonging.
Even for introverts, like me, it sure feels great to be a part of a family, a team, or a community. When you share a common interest or work together with others, there is a wonderful sense that, “I belong.” I think this is the feeling that is missing for so many who choose to end their lives by suicide. In today’s world of social media and cell phones, we are more connected than we have ever been in the history of mankind, and yet, we are also lonelier.
Whether you come to dance class once a week, or you are part of a company that trains together hours upon hours, you know you are walking into a dance room where space has been made for you, somebody knows your name, you are known, and you are valued.
5. Dancing Is an Outlet for Tough Emotions that Can Be Hard to Process Otherwise.
This. This right here is near magic. We all go through junk in our lives, difficult seasons of heartbreak, grief, pain, and confusion. I encourage you to lay it all out on that dance floor. Any therapist will tell you that ignoring the pain or stuffing your feelings will only lead to darker places. Sometimes we feel like we don’t have anyone we can open up with, other times we can’t even put a name to what we are feeling exactly. Either way, take your depression, take your anger, take your hurt, and DANCE.
I can’t tell you how many times I have danced in a room all by myself and stopped part way through to sob. Sometimes I don’t even know why. Dancing seems to have a way of opening you up, so all of the negative can come pouring out. Then I pick myself up and dance some more until I’m beaming with joy or at least ready to face the world again. I’m telling you, it’s magic.
Please know, I am not claiming that dance is a cure-all for depression, and it’s not going to solve our nation’s drug problems.
There are often underlying causes of depression and anxiety that require medical attention or nutritional considerations. And there are many reasons for drug use and addiction. Please do not hesitate to bring this up with a doctor. Mental health is just as important as physical health. Both are vital to your wellbeing. But I do believe that dancing can make a difference because I have experienced it myself, and I see it everyday in the lives of our students.
I am also not blind to the sad truth that there are many dancers who find themselves feeling inadequate in a competitive environment or a cut-throat profession that is constantly comparing talent and body shapes to one another. You may feel like you fail in dance more than you succeed. If this is you, we want you to know that there are dance studios out there and even professional companies that will value you for what you have to offer… which is a whole lot because you are awesome! Freedom Danceworks is one of those studios, and we’d love to have you join our dance family.