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What Everyone Should Know About Stress, Brain Health, and Dance

-- Dancing to the clapping of bands. Egyptian, from the tomb of Ur-ari-en-Ptah, about 3300 B.C. (British Museum.)

– Danc­ing to the clap­ping of bands. Egypt­ian, from the tomb of Ur-ari-en-Ptah, 6th Dynasty, about 3300 B.C. (British Muse­um)

Every­one expe­ri­ences stress at some point in our lives. It is impor­tant to know that stress can harm the brain, and also that dance can be a great avenue for a per­son resist, reduce, or escape it.

Stress can change the phys­i­cal struc­ture and func­tion of the brain, affect­ing wiring and thus per­for­mance of one’s activ­i­ties. For­ma­tion of new neur­al con­nec­tions in the hip­pocam­pus, respon­si­ble for encod­ing new mem­o­ries, becomes blocked. This block­age hin­ders the men­tal flex­i­bil­i­ty need­ed to find alter­na­tive solu­tions and neg­a­tive­ly affects atten­tion, mem­o­ry, and oth­er cog­ni­tive func­tions, moti­va­tion, and ener­gy. Long-term and also short-term stress, even a mere few hours, can reduce cel­lu­lar con­nec­tions in the hip­pocam­pus, shrink­ing it.

How stress can harm the brain

Stress occurs when indi­vid­u­als have to cope with demands that require them to func­tion above or below their usu­al lev­el of activ­i­ty. Every­day wor­ries and pres­sures or the antic­i­pa­tion of a threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tion, or extra­or­di­nary excite­ment, as well as emer­gen­cies, may trig­ger the response. The amyg­dala, via the pitu­itary gland, stim­u­lates the hypo­thal­a­mus to send a mes­sage to adren­al glands that spill out stress hor­mones. These acti­vate the fight-or-flight response, increas­ing the pro­duc­tion of the inflam­ma­to­ry hor­mones adren­a­line (epi­neph­rine) and cor­ti­sol, which work togeth­er to speed heart rate, to increase metab­o­lism and blood pres­sure, to shunt blood way from organs into mus­cles, low­er pain sen­si­tiv­i­ty, and to enhance atten­tion, all ben­e­fi­cial for sur­vival.

After the body has mobi­lized for the alarm reac­tion, and the stress­ful sit­u­a­tion is coped with, the sec­ond phase of the stress response kicks in. The adren­al cor­tex pro­duces anti-inflam­ma­to­ry hor­mones that lim­it the extent of inflam­ma­tion against stres­sors and return the body to nor­mal.

How­ev­er, when a per­son is under chron­ic dis­tress, that fight-or-flight reac­tion stays, turned on and pre­vents the body from return­ing to nor­mal. High adren­a­line and cor­ti­sol lev­els that per­sist cause ill health — both phys­i­cal and cog­ni­tive harm.

The role of dance in promoting brain health

Dance has been a medi­um to cope with stress through his­to­ry and across geo­graph­i­cal space. Humans have long held dance as a key tool in their toolk­it to resist, reduce, or tem­porar­i­ly escape stress. Dance-stress con­nec­tions are played out in social life, on the­ater stages, in the pro­fes­sion­al dance career, in ama­teur dance, and through ther­a­peu­tic inter­ven­tions.

Dance exer­cise may lead to increased lev­els of nor­ep­i­neph­rine and endor­phins, and dis­si­pate the harm­ful bio­chem­i­cal ele­ments of ener­gy that can remain in the body when you nei­ther fight nor flee from stress because phys­i­cal action is impos­si­ble. Move­ments increase blood and oxy­gen flow to the brain, con­tribut­ing to alert­ness, and trig­ger the chem­i­cal brain-derived neu­rotrop­ic fac­tor that sup­ports the health of young neu­rons, encour­ages the growth of new ones, and for­ti­fies con­nec­tions among neu­rons.

As phys­i­cal activ­i­ty dance sparks neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis. Dance gen­er­ates neu­rons that nim­bly wire into the neur­al net­work. More com­plex move­ments lead to more com­plex synap­tic con­nec­tions, and dance has mul­ti­ple lev­els of com­plex­i­ty.

Being exer­cise-plus, dance helps us cope with neg­a­tive stress as a way of know­ing, think­ing, trans­lat­ing, inter­pret­ing, com­mu­ni­cat­ing, and cre­at­ing thought. Going beyond phys­i­cal move­ment, dance con­veys ideas and feel­ings, tells sto­ries, and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with mul­ti­ple parts of the body in var­i­ous ways. Dance requires learn­ing moves, sequences, and mean­ing­ful inter­pre­ta­tion.

Pun­dit David Brooks com­pared danc­ing with the Olympics: “Dance is phys­i­cal, like sports, but, in many ways, it is the oppo­site of sports. In dance, the pur­pose is to blend with and mir­ror each oth­er; in sport, the pur­pose is to come out ahead. Dancers per­form for the audi­ence [and for them­selves] and offer a gift of emo­tion; ath­letes respond to one anoth­er and the spec­ta­tors are just there to wit­ness and cheer.”

Use of the sto­ry telling capa­bil­i­ty of dance is one of the expe­ri­en­tial meth­ods to release a per­son from bad thoughts and behav­ior. In dance peo­ple can recount stress­ful sit­u­a­tions, hold­ing them up for reeval­u­a­tion and cre­at­ing ver­sions of the sto­ries in plea­sur­able ways. Taboo themes can be held up for scruti­ny and con­front­ed safe­ly. After all, dance is only pre­tend, a venue in which to dream one­self anew, even with abstract dances into which mean­ing can be read by dancer and spec­ta­tor.

Dance has the poten­tial to reac­ti­vate the emo­tion­al learn­ing under­ly­ing the person’s neg­a­tive pat­terns. The dance leader/teacher/therapist finds a vivid con­tra­dic­to­ry knowl­edge or expe­ri­ence to dis­con­firm and dis­solve the past learn­ing and then com­bine the two into a jux­ta­po­si­tion expe­ri­ence of new learn­ing. Rep­e­ti­tion serves as new learn­ing that rewrites the neg­a­tive learn­ing.

More­over, exer­cise can reduce depres­sion, anx­i­ety dis­or­ders, and pain. Alter­ing moods improves men­tal health, and thus blunts the stress response. Appar­ent­ly exer­cise also releas­es a copi­ous quan­ti­ty of mag­i­cal, mor­phine-like brain chem­i­cals, such as opi­ate beta-endor­phins, that pro­duce feel­ings of calm, sat­is­fac­tion, eupho­ria, and greater tol­er­ance for pain.

Danc­ing may be a kind of stress inoc­u­la­tion. With its need for strength, flex­i­bil­i­ty, and endurance, dance also pro­motes fit­ness. An indi­vid­ual adapts to the increase in heart rate, blood pres­sure, and stress hor­mones expe­ri­enced dur­ing danc­ing, and con­se­quent­ly can bet­ter resist stress. So dance to resist, reduce, or escape neg­a­tive stress and main­tain your brain health!

Next steps to dance away stress

There are many venues for dance, dif­fer­ent gen­res with their musi­cal accom­pa­ni­ment, and var­i­ous lev­els depend­ing on one’s expe­ri­ence. If one is phys­i­cal­ly fit, dance that is aer­o­bic last­ing more than 30 min­utes sev­er­al times a week appears to be most ben­e­fi­cial. How­ev­er, even dance with mod­est inten­si­ty and amounts is advis­able. Non-dancers have their own tol­er­ance for adven­tures into the unknown, but the inter­net allows a pre­view of types of dance and venues close to you. For a healthy life, keep try­ing until you find what feels right.


JudithLynneHannaJudith Lynne Han­na, PhD, is author of Danc­ing to Learn: The Brain’s Cog­ni­tion, Emo­tion, and Move­ment and a for­mer Cal­i­for­nia-cer­ti­fied social stud­ies and Eng­lish teacher who has taught dance.

–> Editor’s Note: You can join Judith in dis­cussing these top­ics dur­ing the Arts and the Brain Series, April 7, 2016, Thurs­day at 7:30 in the Man­sion, Strath­more per­form­ing arts cen­ter, Rockville, Mary­land.

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