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Can dancing improve your mental health?

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Dance psychology is the study of dance and dancers from a scientific and psychological perspective. What we're trying to understand is what happens when people dance and why, we are looking at it from a healthcare perspective, which might suggest dancing is good for you.

For instance, we are studying the effect of dancing on people with Parkinson's disease. What we're interested in is trying to understand why it is that when people with Parkinson's disease engage in recreational dance some of their symptoms reduce as a consequence of dancing. We're trying to understand why this is happening from a scientific perspective.

How much evidence is there that dancing affects mental health?

There's a growing body of evidence that suggests that dancing is good for people's mental health. This is being shown in patients with depression. There have been published peer-reviewed papers, which suggest that when people with depression engage in certain types of dance, their symptoms can be reduced.

One paper, for example, looked at patients who had been hospitalized for their depression and were put in sessions of recreational dance. In this study, they found a reduction in depressive symptoms.

Other studies, in non-clinical settings, have also shown that teenagers with mild to moderate depression showed reduced levels of depression, when they engaged in a 12-week program of dance and movement.

We've also shown in our studies, in our laboratory, that when people with Parkinson's disease engage in a 10-week program of dance, their mood levels are increased. In addition, there are also several other pieces of research, which support a relationship between dancing and improved depressive symptoms.

Mental health is a broad topic area and we have only picked out depression and mood. We've observed and have given evidence that dance can be used to improve these symptoms in patients.

Can dancing make you happy?

Dancing can definitely make you happier. It depends what type of dancing you do. We've shown that over a 10-week cycle of dancing, improvements in mood can be seen and people feel generally happier overall.

When measuring people's mood before and after a one-hour dance session, we saw an increase across the one hour. However, this is what we expected because of the increase in energy everyone feels when they leave a dance class is very visible, people are a bit more vibrant and have an extra spring in their step that is greater than it was before the dance class.

Something that is not so obvious, is whether this increased happiness lasts outside of the dance class. To study this, we measured participants’ moods one week before a 10-week dancing program and continued to take measurements one week after its completion.

Something quite interesting that we found was that when we measured people's mood a week before and a week after the program we saw an increase in the participants’ mood and happiness. This tells us that even a week after people have last danced, their mood is still improved relative to what it was like 12 weeks earlier.

How much do we understand about the mechanisms underpinning the power of dance?

This is a question which we're still trying to answer and understand what those mechanisms are. In our research group, we've worked with neuroscientist Dr. Lucy Annett, as well as physiotherapists, cognitive psychologists and social anthropologists. We've also worked with a number of psychologists too. What we're trying to understand is where the positive benefit comes from out of all of these things.

Our neuroscientist is focusing on what is happening in the brain, with regards to neurochemicals, when we dance. Our physiotherapist is looking at those physical aspects and some of our psychologists are looking at issues of quality of life. Other cognitive psychologists are studying the cognitive changes that happen while people dance. And the fourth place we're also looking is in the social element of dancing. We believe that all of these things together give us the benefit we have observed.

What we're trying to do is to understand each of those factors, whether it's a neurological, social, cognitive or a physical change. What's the makeup of all those different changes which lead to the improvement in mood and well-being? Because for instance, if their body after dancing feels more loose and relaxed and their muscles are more relaxed, then they might sleep better at night having also done some exercise during the day.

If their thinking and problem-solving skills, so their cognitive processes, become sharper and improved then it's the case that they might be able to think about different strategies for coping with some of the symptoms that they have associated with a particular condition.

If it's a neurochemical issue, it might be the fact that there's some pleasure, and pleasure is releasing dopamine, for example. In some conditions where dopamine is what’s reduced, then it could be an increase of that neurochemical which is causing an improvement there. With our multi-disciplinary team, we're trying to build a model which takes into account the different elements and their contribution.

Another aspect we are also looking at is, we're asking people to do home-based exercises. We've done these exercises in a studio and we've found some positive outcomes from these exercises. One of our researchers who's been working on the project made a video of herself demonstrating those movements and sent the videos to our participants and they did the movements at home. Interestingly, we didn't see the same benefits when they did them at home as we saw when they were doing them in the studio.

This brought to light the potential role of the social elements of dance. Following these results, we then got our researcher, Amelia Hall, to visit all of the participants at home and do the exercises with the participants individually. When she did that, we saw an improvement again.

This led Amelia to believe that there is a social element which is contributing to the benefits seen from dancing and improved mood. And that when people are interacting together, socially, doing shared activities, which are purposeful and enjoyable, that contributes to the overall benefit. What we can't understand as scientists is what the individual contribution of each one of those factors is to the overall benefits.

What further research is needed to increase our knowledge of the impact of dance on the brain?

We still need to understand what the constituents are of the dance that lead to those benefits observed. You could argue that dance is a holistic activity, and because of this, it's impossible to separate out the constituent parts of it and understand their individual contributions.

I don't agree with that. I believe that it's multi-faceted, and in our research we're trying to understand the individual components of dance and how important they are to the benefits observed.

For instance, understanding people's response to rhythmic stimuli. We're trying to understand at the moment about rhythm and timing in movement and in music and the coupling of those things together to understand whether some people are more likely to get a benefit than other people because of their natural response to different types of rhythm and rhythmic behaviors.

We're also looking at issues to do with activity, how much activity people do and how that impacts on later activity. For example, we've had several of our participants in some of our experiments, who are attending dance sessions, comment, "Oh, it's great. After I've finished dancing, the next day I'm suddenly a lot more active. I can do the gardening better. I can walk to work without falling over. I can do all these things." They report all these perpetual changes as a result of the dance.

What is it about the dance that’s causing this change in participant behavior? We're monitoring people's activity for a full week after they dance to see whether just the act of dancing in certain types of way increases their confidence of moving and therefore, we can measure that later on.

These are some of the things that we're looking at. We're looking at rhythm and timing and the neural mechanisms for rhythm and timing to see what contribution they play, and also the effect of activity and how much activity is necessary during the dance to support people's activity throughout the rest of the week.

Do you see a future where dancing is recommended to help manage certain mental health conditions?

Yes. I do see this for the future.

This is something I would love to see, certain types of activity, particularly dancing, being prescribed to help people overcome some of the negative aspects of poor mental health. I think dancing is a great way of delivering so many things. It can deliver social interaction, cognitive processing, problem solving, physical activity and improvement in mood. We know that when people dance they smile.

There's a study looking at children between the ages of five months and two and a half years old. The children were played rhythmic stimuli/music and the children automatically started wiggling their bodies in a natural response to the music. More importantly, after reviewing the video recordings of all the children responding to the rhythmic stimuli they also found that as the children moved their bodies in response to the musical stimuli, they also smiled.

Really early on, before any kind of learning can happen, we know that when people listen to rhythmic sounds/music, they move their body in response, and it leads to an improvement in their mood, which leads to people smiling more.

Another study was carried out at Sheffield and York Universities where participants were put into a room and we’re asked to dance along to a song by Basement Jaxx. The participants had to either: dance, go on an exercise bike or just sit and listen to the music for 5 minutes. When people were dancing to the music, they had an improvement in their mood. We can see this improvement in mood and also an improvement in their problem solving skills.

What's amazing is that we can take this and use it and apply it to a healthcare setting. In the case of CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, patients have to find new ways of thinking. And we have shown that when people dance it led to an improvement in their divergent thinking.

Divergent thinking is a creative type of thinking, where you have to change your original pattern of thinking and tackle it from a new way. In this aspect, it's what CBT tries to achieve within an individual. Of course, if you can't think in a new way CBT might be quite restrictive.

But we can imagine a situation where somebody's trying to think themselves out of some negative thoughts, and dancing will improve their mood and enhance their divergent thinking, which could potentially help them to think of new ways of thinking.

What do you think the future holds for dance psychology and what are you looking to focus on?

I think there's a wonderful future for dance psychology. Because of the multidisciplinary field, we're bringing different areas of science together in order to understand what's happening when we dance, I think there's a big future for it, particularly when we recognize that dancing is an innate activity – which is something we believe.

Dance is done by every culture around the world and there is evidence to suggest it has been done since the beginning of human history. Dancing is a fundamental part of who we are.

I think if we change how we focus on dance and how we look at dance as an innate activity, rather than simply as something that's child's play, then I believe we can unlock the positive benefits associated with dance.

The more we recognize, from a scientific point of view, that there are benefits from dancing, as supported by scientific evidence, then more people will take dancing seriously and this will allow more opportunities to be able to use dance in a therapeutic context that's more generally prescribed.

Have there been any studies on watching dance rather than necessarily participating?

There have been some studies on watching people moving. It is possible to study people in a brain scanner when they watch others dancing, we understand something about what's happening in the brain and you can see what different parts of the brain are doing when they're watching the dance. It's not something we've looked at in relation to health, but we know there are different ways people enjoy watching movements.

It's interesting because it has been shown that when learning some movement patterns and then watching those movement patterns back, you enjoy watching them more than if you hadn't learnt those moving patterns.

I'm not able to speak about the health benefits associated with watching dance, but we know that people do enjoy watching some forms of dance and it can tell us something about what's happening in the brain. But it is not the focus of my research.

What has your research told you about people’s attitude towards dance?

This is an interesting area because something I'm keen to understand is why people choose not to dance or what people's attitudes are about dance. We know there are lots of people who say to us, "Oh, dancing isn't for me because I'm the wrong type of person to dance."

People have a notion of what they think they need to be able to do in order to dance. Lots of people say to me that they feel that they are the wrong shape or size or that they feel too old to dance. Of course, all of those things are very valid but we believe that dancing should be for everyone and there should be no barriers to dance at all. It's quite interesting for us to hear what people's barriers are to dance, why do people stop dancing, why did they give it up etc.

On the study where people were in a room and told to dance, two or three of the participants refused to dance. Even though they were just on their own in a room and nobody was watching them. Even under those conditions, people still felt self-conscious about dancing in public. I can understand that.

Part of the problem with some of the scientific studies that we run is some of the participants self- select into the sample because they already enjoy dancing. We need more randomized control trials where a neurologist, for instance, or a consultant would prescribe people, and put them into a particular dance group or into a non-dancing group so we don't have the bias of people who only enjoy dancing taking part in some of these studies.

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