How dancing can help you cope with traumatic events
Similar to what happens when we listen to music, dancing creates neurological effects on the brain that can actually help us regulate our emotions—reducing stress, depression and anxiety, and increasing happiness, relief and pleasure. Anecdotally, several local dancers will tell you they have used dance as a form of therapy to recover from a traumatic event. They’ve danced to deal with things like a recent breakup, a death in the family, financial troubles, divorce, the loss of a job and so on.
That’s because, scientifically, dance changes the chemicals in your body to help fight off feelings that negatively affect your mood. That means that dance can often be used a therapy in and of itself. In fact, there’s actually a term for this called dance/movement therapy, which can be used to manage depression and trauma. It can even help veterans battle post traumatic stress disorder, according to the American Dance Therapy Association, which was formed in 1966 to support dance/movement therapy as a profession. The association believes movement is directly tied to emotional health.
Granted, dance/movement therapy is a very specific kind of dance often related to the free-flow of emotion and expression. It can take the form of subtle, simple movements all the way through improvised dance.
So what about Latin dancing or couple dancing? Is it the same?
First off, let’s break down couple dancing.
We know that dancing is a form of exercise, which causes your body to release endorphins that change your perception of pain. So like morphine, any form of exercise will lower the feeling of pain and often create a sense of euphoria. Couple dancing is no different. When that salsa beat hits at 200 beats per minute, our bodies are moving. And if we’re doing it right, our entire body is engaged—legs keeping pace, arms styling or working with our partner, sometimes we’re even dancing through our shoulders. So similar to a “runners high,” dancers can walk away from a dance with a sort of “dancer high” resulting from the heavy release of endorphins.
Now, unlike running, couple dancing has an added benefit: the power of connection. Studies have shown that there are ways to trick the brain into thinking you are one with something you are physically not. Our brains create a bond with the “other.” Sometimes this can occur through synchronization, according to a paper published by the University of Oxford. The process of bonding with one another has its own psychological effects. Research suggests it could release oxytocin, the chemical related to our feelings of intimacy and trust; dopamine, which creates feelings of motivation; serotonin, which gives us the feeling of self-importance; and endorphins—all of which create a sense of happiness.
Add these effects to the what’s already happening neurologically when you listen to music, and there, my friends, is how dancing packs quite the punch for those tough days.
So is dancing a magic pill to help people who have suffered from traumatic events recover quickly?
No, not necessarily. But according to a study conducted by the Cochrane Common Mental Disorders Group, an England-based international nonprofit, evidence shows that in some cases dancing can be more effective in treating depression in adults than standard care alone.
That means if you’re dealing with something tough, you might want to give dancing a try. By no means is it a replacement for professional mental health. In all of the studies mentioned, researchers suggested there is still much studying to be done when it comes to dancing and its effects on the brain.
But if dancing can provide a few minutes of escape, it might be worth considering. And if nothing else, it’s a great way to meet new friends and learn a new skill, both of which are benefits in themselves.