The evidence looks promising: Dancing may help with depression symptoms. For many people, it provides a personal, profound experience that supports healing.
Depression can make it hard to engage in activities you once enjoyed. Engaging in soothing movements while dancing could boost your mood and improve your symptoms in some cases.
The formal symptoms of depression include:
- low mood in the form of sadness, hopelessness, irritability, or anger
- difficulty experiencing joy
- trouble focusing
- changes in sleeping and eating habits
- unexplained aches and pains
- fatigue and low motivation
- feeling restless or moving and speaking slower than usual
- thoughts of self-harm and death
If you live with these symptoms, you may not feel up to doing much, but some physical activity could actually make you feel better.
Yes, studies suggest that a regular dance practice, solo, in a group setting or with a dance therapist, can pair well with depression treatment.
A 2021 meta-analysis of 28 studies found that adults reported benefits for depression symptoms, stress, and anxiety after 2.5 hours (or more) of dance intervention per week.
A dance intervention involves:
- organized and structured bodily movements
- playing of music
- a therapeutic relationship with a practitioner
Dancing can also improve your cardiovascular health, promote the production of feel-good chemicals in the body, and help you connect with others.
What is dance therapy?
The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) defines dance therapy as “a psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual.”
Instead of talking about your feelings directly, the way you might do in a talk therapy session, a dance movement therapist will encourage you to express yourself using your body.
This could include:
- focusing on breath work while you move
- taking you through specific movements
- mirroring your movements to promote empathy and connection
If you enjoy music of any kind, dancing can be a helpful strategy to boost your mood, let out energy, feel relaxed, and reduce stress, says Lauren Helper, a licensed clinical social worker in Winchester, Virginia.
She says this dancing could look like:
- moving around your house to a song you enjoy
- taking a dance class
- going out dancing with your partner or friends
“The important part of movement is that it is enjoyable,” says Helper.
Dancing can have an effect on your mental health for many reasons, including:
Enhanced neurotransmitter activity
For some, depression symptoms are tied to reduced neurotransmitter activity in the brain. “Research has extensively tested the body and brain’s response to movement and shown that it can greatly impact one’s overall mental well-being,” explains Helper.
Dancing, like other forms of exercise, releases endorphins, giving you a mood boost during and after your workout. Research shows that even one session of exercise can provide benefits for depression, and dancing can be an excellent form of exercise.
Other studies suggest that music also helps release dopamine, another possible reason that dancing can feel like a powerful healing intervention.
A small 2021 study of 27 people hospitalized with major depressive disorder found that a combination of medication and a dance program enhanced patients’ feelings of self-efficacy, compared to those who were only given medication.
Increased interest in activities
One challenge with depression is that it can reduce your interest in hobbies or activities that you used to love. Some research suggests that dancing may help with this.
A small 2021 study on adults over the age of 65 found that line dancing improved their depression symptoms, increased interest in activities, and enhanced how participants felt about their lives.
Depression is often linked with rumination and intrusive thoughts. Perhaps you find yourself feeling negative about the past or having anxiety about the future.
Research shows that dancing can help to bring you into the present moment and into your body, which may temporarily free your mind from distressing thoughts. Dancing can be an excellent grounding exercise.
A 2021 study, for example, found that dancing more than once a week is associated with increased mindfulness, reduced distress, and improved quality of life.
Hardships and traumatic experiences can lead to depression symptoms in some people.
There is increasing evidence to suggest that trauma is stored in the body. Somatic interventions, like dancing, can help people “move” — literally, and figuratively — through difficult memories in order to heal.
As an example of this, a 2021 study of internally displaced persons (IDP) in Africa found that 8 weeks of African circle dance interventions, combined with two psychoeducation classes, improved depression symptoms.
While dancing is a healthy and helpful coping strategy, it isn’t a replacement for therapeutic support and treatment, says Helper.
“If you’re living with depression, it’s also recommended that you seek out mental health support from a licensed professional to help you manage your symptoms.”
Untreated depression may lead to more intense and lasting symptoms.
According to experts and research, dancing can help with depression symptoms. It can increase neurotransmitter activity in your brain, improve your self-esteem, and enhance your mindfulness, among other benefits.
While it can’t replace professional support, dancing can be a great compliment to your overall treatment plan.