Just Dance: A Prescription for Mental Wellbeing

In a village on the east coast of China, a farming couple and their “rural-style shuffle dance” has gone viral on TikTok. Their dancing is joyful and upbeat, sometimes taking place in front of fields of corn or grazing cows. And it has been therapeutic.

The husband, Fan Deduo, had fallen into a depression following a severe car accident. His wife, Peng Xiaoying, suggested that he learn to dance to help him feel better.

“When the music starts, my mind goes empty, and I feel totally different,” said Dedua in a video for South China Morning Post.

The dancing soon became part of their daily routine, bringing joy to both the couple and the millions of people who have watched their videos worldwide during quarantine. “I hope everybody can dance along and be healthy like us,” said Xiaoying.

Their videos are a testament to the power of dancing to heal and improve mental health regardless of style or setting. They’re also a reminder that shaking it off can feel really good—even in these times of extraordinary stress and uncertainty.

Feeling Good on the Dance Floor

Dancing—and its requisite movement and aerobic activity—is obviously good for your physical health, but it’s good for your mental health, too. The science shows that dance helps alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

In one survey of non-professional dancers, mood improvement was their main motivation for dancing, followed by socializing and escapism. A meta-analysis of 23 studies involving over 1,000 subjects suggests that dance movement therapy and the therapeutic use of dance are particularly effective for increasing quality of life and decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Another recent meta-analysis of 41 studies and over 2,300 participants confirmed those findings and also found that dance improves mood and emotional affect. For example, adults who dance non-professionally report having more positive emotions and less negative ones on days they dance than ones they don’t. And there is growing evidence that dancing improves people’s self-image and self-expression, whether they are young or old.

Dancing also relieves stress. A series of randomized controlled studies found that ten sessions of dance and movement training improved participants’ stress management and reduced their feelings of distress. The stress-busting power of dance may lie in its ability to reduce levels of cortisol. This stress hormone helps us respond to threatening situations but can become problematic when chronically elevated.

The Democracy of Dance

One of the more appealing aspects of dance is that its mood-lifting properties apply to many different demographics, including more vulnerable populations that are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

For patients with psychiatric disorders like anxiety or depression, dancing helps reduce their clinical symptoms like feelings of distress, anxiety, or the blues. Dance therapy reduces depression and anxiety symptoms for patients both on or off antidepressant medication, possibly due to its ability to modulate levels of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters important for mood regulation. Dancing also improves sleep and decreases insomnia, which in turn helps improve one’s mood.

And for the elderly, senior dancers had superior sensory, movement, and cognitive capabilities compared with non-dancers, suggesting that regular dancing could slow the declines that come with aging.

Moving the Body Moves the Mind

Dancing is a non-verbal artform, which helps us uniquely express our emotions through our bodies. By forming this link between the body and mind, dancing may help us become more embodied—increasing awareness of our body’s sensations and how specific emotions relate to those sensations. This practice of noticing and connecting physical sensations to your emotions is linked to mindfulness and can help combat repetitive negative self-talk, a hallmark of depression.

Creating these mind-body connections through dance has been shown to help people deal with the emotional burdens of depression by drawing them out of cycles of brooding or emotional numbness.

Double the Pleasure, Double the Fun

The power of dance also lies in its synergistic combination of aerobic exercise and music, both of which are known to activate different brain circuits involved in emotion, reward and memory.

The aerobic activity of dance increases blood flow to the brain and releases endorphins, which are natural opioid-like hormones that can reduce pain. Aerobic exercise also stimulates the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus. This brain area shrinks during depression, leading affected individuals toward an unhealthy pattern of overgeneralizing negative experiences. But the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, spurred by aerobic exercise like dance, may help the brain course-correct and form more balanced memories.

Music is also a big driver of the enjoyment people find in dance—and its health benefits, too. Music activates a diverse network of brain structures involved in mood, cognition, and sensory perception and increases the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter essential to the feeling of pleasure.

It’s no surprise that music by itself can improve mood. But by pairing music with movement, dance becomes greater than the sum of its parts and provides more benefits than music or exercise alone. One study found that patients with depression who participated in a group dance circle improved significantly more in their depression symptoms than patients who either just listened to dance music or exercised. The dancers also reported feeling more energetic and strong.

By combining music and exercise, dance is double the pleasure and double the fun. For a mental boost to your day, dancing is a great place to start.

How to Get Started with Dancing at Home

Dancing feels good and is good for you regardless of your skill level and whether you do it by yourself or with loved ones.  Below are suggestions for dance classes and dance parties for when you get the urge to move it.

Try your hand at modern dance or channel your inner Fosse with online classes:

Show off your freestyle moves with a virtual dance party:

Host your own family dance-off:

This is article is a part of IAM Lab’s regularly updated COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide. Be sure to check the Guide for the latest, evidence-based tips on how the arts can support our wellbeing during the pandemic.

We would also like to hear from you: Are you, your loved ones or colleagues dealing with specific issues and want to learn more about art-based solutions? Are you already using the arts to help you cope? 

Please share your thoughts, ideas and concerns with us at covid19arts@artsandmindlab.org. Be well and stay safe.

Lead Image: Xinhua / Zheng Mengyu

Written and reported by IAM Lab Communications Specialist Richard Sima. Richard received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins and is a science writer living in Baltimore, Maryland. 

COVID-19 Dance Health Mental Health Neuroscience Public Health