As mental health issues have increased in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in creating art has also increased, providing us with ways to creatively cope with the new uncertainties and restrictions of the everyday life.
As some unprecedented health effects of isolation and lockdowns, such as PTSD and loneliness, have emerged during COVID, so have creative alternatives and interventions recommended by medical professionals. to help their patients and community members. These artistic and aesthetic experiences range from drawing sessions to dance lessons, visits to museums to theater, etc.
But how does dance work specifically to manage, rebuild or even heal us from a collective and traumatic experience like COVID?
COVID quickly reframed our experiences of gathering and creating together
“The COVID experience has changed your nervous system,” says Shira Karman, a body-focused psychotherapist and adjunct professor of dance movement therapy and psychotherapy at Lesley University. “It’s not just an emotional reaction. We have a biological reaction. Our Nervous Systems Are Altered By “Don’t Touch” Messages [each other].” Repeatedly hearing these reminders to socially distance, wear masks and avoid large gatherings during the height of COVID, coupled with increased anxiety and fear of infection, dancing and other group activities seemed impossible — until virtual gatherings quickly became commonplace.
As isolation and lockdowns have led to reports of domestic violence and children in countries like China, researchers Dr Ilene Serlin and Grace Zhou focused on a group of hotline callers struggling with anxiety and fears of abuse in Beijing, as well as hotline counselors and psychologists monitoring counselors experiencing their “own burnout” and “caregiver burnout.” They recommended dance and movement therapy (DMT) to hotline callers as well as psychologists to help them deal with the trauma they were experiencing.
Serlin and Zhou designed “Zoom toolkits” that used DMT techniques to make callers and hotline supervisors feel safe and understood in a virtual space. By watching a video series created by Serlin and Zhou, participants learned to mirror the movements of others and regain a sense of emotional grounding. “As emotions are embedded in symbolic movements, such as reaching out for hope or leaning forward vigorously to plant the seeds, participants had the chance to experience emotional shifts without needing to name or verbally share them. with the others,” Serlin and Zhou note. . “It can allow for greater freedom of expression and liberation.”
How community dancing can rebuild connection and community
While dancing can help us process our COVID experiences individually, it could also positively reframe our social identity in a community setting, whether virtually or in person beyond COVID. Karman points to the benefits of using dance to treat the pandemic, which involves the body’s neurons linked to empathy, called mirror neurons: “They help us learn both skills and social behavior,” notes Karman. “One of the things dance movement therapy used early in the profession was this idea of mirroring movement, and we understand why that can be so powerful. You build trust without conversation. It’s a profound experience of having someone pay enough attention to follow your movement.
We now know that dancing alone at home, even for five minutes, can improve emotional well-being, but research also shows that dancing in a virtual group or in person also has benefits. When we move with others, we experience a neural synchrony that allows us to feel more connected to each other in a group setting.
Analyzing a group of high school students dancing together, one study noted that “two key elements—timing and effort—independently raise pain thresholds and encourage bonding” in an in-person setting. Through bonding, dancing can provide a social safety net to make others feel seen and understood. “You don’t experience solo anymore,” says Karman. “It builds security – the emotional and physical mirror that ‘I’m understood’ and ‘I understand you’.”
Recognizing that some participants may have better dance proficiency than others when they come together, a 2022 report by Dr. Julia C. Basso and colleagues at Virginia Tech University highlighted the benefits of participating in a single dance class: “In terms of dance history, our data revealed that the most novice dancers (i.e. those with the fewest years of dance experience ) experienced the greatest gains in positive affective state. The authors of the report, who analyzed the results of a virtual dance program in the United States, noted that “this is one of the first reports to examine the association between dance history and changes mental health after a single line dancing session”.
The health benefits of dancing together
Of course, there are also notable physical benefits: dancing can help lower cortisol levels, alleviate stress, and even maintain and improve balance. Several dance companies and studios have taken their offerings online, including Dance For PD, which has also gone viral and created a safe space for attendees with Parkinson’s to feel connected, empowered and engaged, as well as their families. Dance to Health, a dance program designed to prevent injuries from falling in older populations in the UK, went fully live during COVID and saw a 58% reduction in injuries, according to its 2020 report, which was later highlighted in the Aspen Institute and Johns Hopkins University NeuroArts Master Plan.
As psychiatrist Carl Jung noted, “loneliness comes not from having no one around, but from the inability to communicate the things that seem important to you.” As we continue to deal with COVID-19 and its effects on society, the benefits of reflecting and moving with each other can ultimately help us reconnect to ourselves and members of our communities. And incorporating more movement and dance into our lives may just help us heal from the pandemic, together.
This article originally appeared on the International Arts + Mind Lab blog.