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Dance, the Ancient Solution for Modern Mental Health?

“Shake your groove thing, shake your groove thing, yeah yeah!!”

Dance is Ingrained in Our DNA

There’s a reason babies know how to bop around to the music as early as 5 months old… it’s deeply ingrained in our DNA! Dancing has been an integral part of the human experience for millenia. Our ancestors used dancing as a way to bond and communicate with each other. They danced to reach enlightened experiences. They danced to get ready for battle. They danced to celebrate life and to celebrate death. They danced before a hunt, at weddings, and when babies were born. Any time something important was happening humans danced. Think of any situation in which you would think “I need to be present for this” and it is pretty much guaranteed that dancing would happen. This gives us a clue as to what the actual power is in dance. It fosters “presentness.” Humans dance instinctually; to celebrate, to mourn and to heal. We even have terms like “the happy food dance” when you eat something tasty and bob along with the happy food song in your head because its so tasty! Today through research we can prove what our ancestors have known for millennia.

Dancing is now scientifically proven to:

Participants in a UCLA study that utilized free form dance said things like:

“I have a greater sense of meaning”

“I feel more present in my body”

“I have a greater sense of purpose”

“I’m more relaxed”

“I feel more present in the moment”

Good for the heart, and for the soul!

We all know dancing gets our heart rates up. We all know that's a health promoting thing but that doesn’t begin to touch the synergistic effect that dancing has on health. Regular western, colonized healthcare views folks’ physical conditions separately from mental conditions. Since the mind is a product of the brain which is just as physical as a liver or spleen, we aren’t going to do that. Luckily there are scientists that are interested in the whole aspect of the human instead of its parts, and know how to study it well. So we’re gonna see what they have to say. Advancements in psychosomatic research tell us that body and mind are basically one thing. The mind, which is a function of the brain and the body affect the other simultaneously and constantly through two way communication. Which means they can't be understood through separation. They can only be understood as an interdependent system. Since no physical condition exists without a coupled mental state and visa-versa, we will be discussing these two aspects in tandem.

A great example of this is how dancing improves cardiovascular health even more than just walking alone, even when done at the same intensity level. A study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 2016 found that participants over age 40 who danced (with moderate intensity) enough to make themselves sweaty or out of breath, were 46% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than people who did not dance within a 10 year time span! The same study found that people who walked for exercise at the same moderate intensity, again, enough to be out of breath and sweaty, were only 25% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.

Did you notice the difference there? Dancing proved to be almost twice as effective at preventing heart disease as walking with the same intensity, as measured by sweat and breath! They’re both full body exercises done at the same intensity level. Why is it so different? Really all we have is speculation here but it seems to us that the answer lies in dancing’s ability to move people in a variety of ways. Walking is basically standing on one leg and falling forward till your other leg stops the fall. I know this sounds bizarre but that's literally what I was taught in my medical training. The phrase was “walking is controlled falling” So the variety of movement that we get from walking is very limited when compared to all the twisting, pinching, shaking, gliding, reaching and stretching our body does when we are dancing. It seems that the sheer variety of movement our body experiences during dancing is especially effective at improving mood and stopping depression in its tracks.

Here’s an experiment to do right now to prove this point - Stand up, turn on your favorite dance songs and move your body freely to the music for 4 minutes. If you’re still sitting you're doing it wrong. Can you do this without feeling an INSTANT improvement in your mood? How long can you go without a smile spreading across your face or instantaneous bouts of laughter? Pretty hard not to feel happy when you’re dancing right?? If no, Try keeping your arms above your head while you dance to add that variety. Doesn't that intensify the silly joy? (Meanwhile I’ve seen plenty of power walkers that look like they’re going to a funeral… maybe even their own…) The positive mental effects of dance are not only obvious but now they’re undeniable.

A study from UCLA wanted to explore the mental effects of free form conscious dancing on participants with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, a history of trauma, and a history of addiction. All of these conditions saw vast improvements in over 80% of people. The researchers were genuinely shocked at the amount of participants who saw improvements. Are you ready? 96% of people suffering from depression and anxiety said dancing effectively helped them cope. That’s a HUGE success rate!! No really… read that again…. Do you know what the efficacy rates are for depression medications? You know the ones that are being prescribed at a higher rate than ever? It’s about 30-40% depending on the study and drug. That means medications for depression work (but also have side effects) for a meager 30-40% of the people who need help with their depression.

Coping with depression helps prevent heart disease because the chemicals released in a depressed person actually lead to plaque build up, heart arrhythmia's, and even full blown heart disease.

According to Roy Charles Ziegelstein, M.D. from John Hopkins, “Depression and heart disease are among the most disabling diseases we face. They are both very widespread among the general population and often occur simultaneously in the same individual.”

Not only does cardiovascular disease often lead to depression, depression can lead to heart disease as well. Dr. Ziegelstein goes on to say, “People with depression may have uncommonly sticky platelets, the tiny cells that cause blood to clot. In patients with heart disease, this can accelerate atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and increase the chance of heart attack. Some studies show that treating depression makes platelets less sticky again.”

Do you love your heart? Then it’s time to boogie!!

Find a little space in your house, put a dance music playlist on, and let your body do whatever the heck it wants! I can confidently say, with science supporting me, that you will certainly feel better on every level.

So it turns out “Shake your groove thing” is some damn good advice! It improves a whole smorgasbord of conditions, physical and mental. It’s been ingrained in our DNA since the beginning of time to move our bodies in an expressive and fun way. It’s unfortunate so many of us grew up in restricted and suppressive environments. The religion our colonizers used to genocide their way across the planet steeped our culture in shame. We lost touch with our natural desire to move and groove and enjoy our bodies out of some misguided religious notion of purity which doesn’t exist in real life. As this natural urge to use and live through our bodies got stifled, we got disconnected from our bodies. If you can't exist in your body then where can you exist? Is it any wonder we are all so disconnected? But wait! There’s more!

Lose weight and process trauma… at the same time?

Like we said, when one piece of health crashes so does the rest. Often depression, metabolic disorders like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases manifest with extra body weight. And unfortunately if there is a mental health disorder concurrent with weight gain it can be hard to overcome and it can be devastating for our sense of self worth. So one of the most exciting parts about free form dance for me is how effectively it can help people process trauma. Janet Lo is a UCLA grad who teaches a healing-focused style of dance. She really hits the nail on the head when she says, “trauma, anxiety and depression can cause people to disassociate and disconnect from their bodies, but conscious dance allows them to get in touch with all their senses.”

Peaches & Herb clearly understood this phenomena when they sang “Shake it high or shake it low, we take our bodies where they want to go.” By letting your body do what it wants, you are tapping into your emotions and expressing them through movement, bypassing the need for words. Since trauma is stored in the body and can manifest as chronic pain, dance can help to process and integrate these emotions into our current reality so they are no longer “stuck” in us. Dance puts us in the present moment, puts us in touch with our bodies and emotions, and allows us to explore our own feelings and memories in a self guided safe way.

Traumatic flashbacks can cause the Broca’s area of the brain (responsible for language) to go offline, making verbal communication difficult. Consider this: Psychologists from the UK went to Rwanda to “help” the people recover from genocidal trauma. Their use of talk therapy not only didn’t help the Rwandan people heal, it actually hurt them more. Their way of healing was dancing in community to process grief, and when they were asked to talk about their painful experiences in a small dark room with a stranger, it was even more traumatizing. Cultures from all over the world have used dance to process emotions as a community and still do to this day.

Dancing is its own language that can express and process emotions in a way that talking about it alone cannot. Getting your body involved in the trauma healing process produces more profound results than just talking alone. One of those results includes weight loss. On average, dancing burns 300-400 calories per hour, and when coupled with a healthy diet, can result in losing 1-3 pounds per week. A new sense of confidence will start to build as you see changes in your body and feel changes in your mind. Losing weight on first glance can seem like a superficial thing - after all skinny doesn't mean healthy. But the connection that high body fat has with other health conditions including depression and anxiety is also undeniable. There is no shame in wanting to lose weight and there's no shame in struggling to lose it. Just remember health is the goal. Not skinny.

Make it a habit. Make it your lifestyle. Make it a part of your family's culture. If you want to make tomorrow better than today, teach your children and your children's children to dance.

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