If you’ve struggled with depression, you’ve probably heard the statistics. Depression affects more than 350 million people worldwide, and women are 2-3 times more likely to be diagnosed than men. It can be triggered by a major life event, or can arrive without warning. More than just “the blues,” it can take the joy out of everyday life, leaving you feeling empty and unmotivated.
For some people, psychotherapy or prescription medication can help alleviate the symptoms. But have you considered dancing?
Dance is considered to be one of the earliest forms of human communication, and it’s also a great way to exercise, get your mind off your daily life, and find others with common interests. There are many kinds of dance class, from classical ballet (adult classes are often very welcoming with no tutus required), to rhythm-driven African dance, to dance-inspired aerobics classes like Zumba.
Here are five ways that taking a regular dance class can help curb depression and bring more joy into your life.
- Exercise. You’ve certainly heard that the best way to fight depression is to get up and get some exercise. Aerobic exercise elevates levels of both dopamine (the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward) and euphoria-inducing endorphins. But if you suffer from depression, you also know how difficult it can be to get motivated.
Dance classes help erode away that resistance because they take place at a certain time (please show up to your dance class on time), and the instructor will guide you through whatever the movement sequence is that day. You don’t have to track anything, program any elliptical machines, or remember which weight machines you should be using.
- Music. Most dance classes take place with some sort of musical accompaniment, whether that be recorded music or, if you’re lucky, a live pianist or percussionist. Rhythm, the most basic of musical elements, gives our brain something to focus on, and certain tempos can even induce trance states. Researchers at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland found that music therapy provided short-term relief of depression, so why not move your body as your instrument?
- Finding flow. Dance classes are like a moving meditation, even the most vigorous ones. During an hour-long dance class, you’ll be so focused on following the structure of the class that time will fall away. You won’t even have time to feel distracted by your depressive inertia. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state of consciousness “flow,” and it’s sometimes called being “in the zone.” It’s also characterized by a feeling that you have the potential to succeed, which will help you feel better about yourself.
- Other people. Sometimes interacting with other humans seems like the last thing you want to do when going through a depressive episode. However, the structured nature of a dance class allows you the experience of being in a room with others without the awkwardness of having to make small talk. Some dance classes don’t require you to interact much with the other students, such as an adult ballet class, or a dance-based fitness class like Zumba. Other classes, such as creative dance classes that involve more improvisation, do encourage interaction with fellow students. If you aren’t sure what to expect, contact the studio or instructor before you go.
- The joy of improvement. Every dance form has techniques that often take time and practice to refine. When you struggle to remember a complex movement sequence or stay balanced during a turn, you have two choices: get frustrated and quit, or keep coming back to class. And when you feel like we’ve done something well that you once struggled with, your brain floods with dopamine. Dopamine spurs you to want to seek that sense of reward again, so you’re more likely to go back to dance class. And when you do, you’ll be bringing more activity, music, and community into your life, keeping depression at bay.