Being active has long been recognised to lower stress levels, but did you know that dancing can be one of the most effective stress therapies?
Last week one of my old college friends visited me. She has recently retrained to become a stress coach and we soon discovered that we deal with many of the same issues. The main similarities being the ability to be in and feel your body, as well as maintaining a good and regular breathing pattern (all my students know all to well my regular instruction about remembering to breath!).
So how does it actually work? To keep it short enough for this blogpost, here’s my somewhat simplified breakdown:
People who suffer from stress are often disconnected from their body in the sense that they focus mainly on the conversations they are having in their head. We all know these self-chats, which tend to be about things to remember and do, or repeating certain experiences that we’ve had. This constant thought-flow can fill your mind with unnecessary clutter, hence one of the best stress busters being writing all those thoughts down to free up your mental headspace. If your thoughts are worth remembering, then you can save your notes. If not, then throw them away! Stress coaches often recommend keeping pen and paper by your bed too, so you can do this should you wake during the night with loads on your mind.
Physical movement is another way to switch your brain from running these constant ‘what to do’s’ on repeat. But ideally you have already written some of your thoughts down, to get them out of your system. Any kind of movement is good, but dancing is especially effective for several reasons:
When learning new steps and choreographies you have to focus on your body. You have to ‘feel your body’ in order to create the move. Moving your focus from brain to body is key. You can’t worry about laundry and food shopping whilst perfecting your hagalla! Allowing yourself to experience and create movement like this with your body is very therapeutic. It may not be easy, and yes your brain will be busy too trying to work out how to move you the way you want, but it’s a very different kind of busy. Remembering choreographies and step combinations also takes a lot of brain capacity and you will feel tired but you’re using completely different parts of your brain, namely those related to physical movement and visualisation (most dancers rely on visualising movement and floor patterns, which is a great way to remember and retain information). We’ve all heard of ‘muscle memory’ which suggests that your body remembers instead of your brain. Technically it’s still your brain doing all the works, but it’s using those parts of your brain that only get used when creating movement, so in a way ‘muscle memory’ does exist.
When dancing you’re hopefully enjoying the music too which is part of it, and music in itself is proven to activate parts of the brain which deals with emotions. I think everyone knows the feeling of listening to a certain song and all of a sudden lots of memories come flooding back, or you may feel happy or sad depending on the mood of the music. The pure therapeutic benefits of music is worth several blog posts, but I hope you get the picture.
The key thing is that when dancing you also have to engage with the music, not only to step on or capture the beat, but also to flow with and express it. Adults often don’t allow themselves to do this, but it’s a very instinctive thing, hence people often swaying to music or tapping the beat without thinking about it.
Experiences are often more enjoyable when shared, and the same goes with dancing, whether your attending a class or performing at a show. The social interaction and having a laugh with others, as well as the energy that’s created, is mood boosting.
Getting out of your house to be with other people also alleviates stress (assuming you like some of the people you’re with). When we’re busy it’s easy to to isolate oneself, which then allows more of the constant self chat already mentioned. It’s easy to say you haven’t got time to go to class, but often it will create that much needed break that will allow you to distance yourself from what ever creates your stress, so you can re-focus better afterwards.
Your body breathes automatically, but not always in the best way. When stressed, we tend to breath very shallow at the top of our chest. This can affect muscle performance and create tightness in neck, back and shoulders. But when we’re concentrating we may also hold our breath, hence my regular reminder to students about breathing.
Breathing excesses are therefore a commonly used technique to combat stress. Our bodies are designed to breath using our diaphragm, and some dance movements such as a belly flutter, can only be created using these muscles. Try holding a hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Where are you currently breathing from? Then focus on your diaphragm, feel how your ribs expand at the bottom. It’s the same technique used by singers, when meditating and doing yoga.
Any dance class should therefore also have the element of correct breathing incorporated, educating students about the importance. I often joke that blue lips look bad when dancing, but the truth is that good breathing is essential when working on fluid arms, a relaxed top line as well as to power all your muscles in general. Singing along to the music can help you main good breathing, as long as you remember to use your diaphragm.
So there you have it, dancing is great as stress therapy. But having said that its of course not for everyone, and performing dance can also create a lot of stress for certain people. But if you remember to breathe and feel the music, as well as the movements, it will also help relax and reenergise you. What are you experiences with stress and dancing? Does it work for you or have you got other tips that I may have left out? Please join the conversation by leaving a comment below, and keep the knowledge sharing going.
Happy stress free dancing!
Did you miss my last post? Read it here: How to find your right dance teacher