There are shortcuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them. – Vicki Baum
Anxiety, as I’m sure you know only too well, is a tricky beast to live with. It lurks in the dark corners of your mind, filling your head with worry and flooding your body with adrenalin. But it is exactly this mind/body connection that we can use to help bring our anxiety under control.
Our symptoms of anxiety are simply the way our bodies express the mental turmoil created in our brains. In other words, anxiety is created in the mind but felt through the body.
What we need, therefore is an outlet for that anxious energy in our bodies – and this is one of the reasons exercise is so often recommended as a way to treat anxiety. It allows us to feel in control of our body and its responses, which in turn helps calm the mind. Plus of course, it gives us a good old boost of endorphins! Hello, happiness hormones 🙂
But whilst exercise in general has been shown to have a beneficial effect on treating anxiety, I want to share with you the reasons I think dance (and dance therapy) is the most effective form of exercise for anxiety.
To begin with, some science to show that I am not alone in this way of thinking – although as a dancer, I am perhaps a little biased! In 1984, researchers Leste and Rust conducted a study comparing a number of different treatments for anxiety disorders. The clear conclusion was that dance decreased anxiety and improved overall mood more than any other activity – exercise class, music class or maths class (to me this is unsurprising, maths definitely increases my anxiety! :p).
So what is it about dance that makes it such a great form of therapy? For me, it can be broken down into three areas: exercise, mindfulness, creativity.
As a form of exercise, you can’t get much better than dance. It is the perfect combination of aerobic and anaerobic exercise, that requires engaging and working a whole host of muscle groups. It increases cardiovascular health, improves stamina, and works muscular strength and endurance.
If you’ve ever attended a dance class you’ll know how hard work it is, and when you wake up the next day your body will ache in places you didn’t even know it could!
So, we know that exercise is positive for our mental health because it reduces cortisol levels and gives us a shot of endorphins. But it also has a positive effect on our sleep hygiene. Just a small amount of daily exercise can show a remarkable improvement in quality and quantity of sleep. And the more rested you are, the more easily you can deal with stressful situations. In fact, neuroscientists have shown that us worriers are particularly vulnerable to the effects of poor or insufficient sleep. So get moving and catch some zee’s!
Okay, mindfulness is definitely the buzzword of the moment and you may well be sick of hearing it, so I’m going to approach this section in a different way.
As I mentioned before, anxiety can make us feel disconnected or out of control, and by being bringing our awareness to our body, we can direct that energy in a positive way. For me, mindfulness is simply that – an awareness of the moment we are in.
Anxiety makes us worry about our past actions, and it makes us concerned for the future, and those thoughts in turn have an affect on our present self. What ‘mindfulness’ does is it encourages us to spend time with ourselves in the present moment.
Dance therapy is an amazing way to practice mindfulness. It allows our minds to be totally focussed on the present – the movements we are making, the muscles we are working, the emotions we are expressing. And above all, it is a way of being in total control over our body and mind. Imagine trying to remember a complicated series of steps while also panicking about that text message your friend never replied to – you just can’t do it!
And, just like yoga, dance helps us be aware of – and control – our breath. It prevents us from hyperventilating and helps decrease the production of stress hormones.
I see dance being used as communication between body and soul, to express what it too deep to find for words. – Ruth St. Denis
So onto the third and final strand, creativity. Dance is a wonderful way to channel our anxiety into something creative. Movement is incredibly natural and inherent in humans beings, and is one of the oldest forms of communication. We can express through dance therapy thoughts, feelings and emotions that maybe we can’t find the words to describe.
If you’re an anxious person and someone asks you what is wrong, more often than not it’s difficult to put your finger on exactly why you are feeling the way you are. Dance can help you explore those feelings, even if you can’t put them into words.
Plus you only have to put the words “famous people with anxiety disorders” into Google and you’ll be flooded with a whole host of hugely creative (and successful) people. Just look at the wonderful Carrie Fisher! Anxiety and mental illness is not something that defines you. View it as a tool you can use to channel into your creativity.
And last, but by no means least, dance is great fun. It’s a way to let go, to do something totally different from your everyday life, and to share that fun and enjoyment with those around you.