We have an old-fashioned relationship with movement and learning. We rarely allow them to happen at the same time. In schools and universities around the world we fill lecture theatres and classrooms with tables and chairs and expect learners to sit still while they learn. But what if we introduced
Why CBT didn’t clear my mind - but dancing did.
Dance and Mental Wellbeing
I’ve been working on Move-Assure a Dance for Mental Wellbeing programme with Dame Darcey Bussell, for two years. In this article I discuss the relationship between dance and mental wellbeing from a personal perspective.
I have experienced three major episodes of depression and anxiety in my life.
The first was in 1985, for which I was prescribed antidepressants.
I was 21, and a final year student at the Guildford School of Acting (GSA). I remember experiencing huge mood swings.
I’d wake up feeling anxious, and the anxiety would quickly turn to anger and I’d cycle to GSA having imaginary heated arguments with people. My mind would be full of every aggressive detail and my body would be in full-on fight or flight mode – muscles tense, sweaty palms and I’d be pumped with adrenaline. My mind and body were in battle mode.
An hour later I’d be half way through a morning ballet class floating up to euphoria – dancing under the influence – at one with the piano music, melting into the floor and springing up from it. Arms like wings helped me to fly. I was in love with the world, and everyone in it.
Nobody knew what was going on in my mind – I kept it all locked up in my body.
After several weeks my body couldn’t hold it any longer and I broke down while on the phone to my parents. I went home for a rest and my GP prescribed a course of antidepressants.
I didn’t like being on antidepressants. Although I was glad of the relief from the dark lows, I missed the highs – I wasn’t very comfortable sitting in the middle of my emotional spectrum.
This first episode of anxiety and depression seemed to end in 1986, when I left GSA and got my first professional job as a dancer.
The second episode was twenty years later in 2006, for which I was prescribed CBT.
I was a Reader in Psychology at a university – A Reader is now known as an Associate Professor. I’d done well in the intervening twenty years, but I felt like a complete failure.
I’d wake up in the morning and in the 15 minutes between being completely asleep and completely awake my mind would replay all the times in my life when I’d let people down. There were lots of concrete examples from my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood to draw from – every morning the 15 minutes before breakfast was a well stocked buffet of other people’s disappointment – and it stuffed my head full of negative thoughts all day.
My GP diagnosed mild-moderate bipolar, referred me to a psychiatrist and prescribed an online course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The psychiatrist visit didn’t work out (another story) and there wasn’t enough space in my head for the CBT.
The premise of CBT is that the way we think and the way we behave affects the way we feel, and that if we change the way we think then this can change our behaviours and feelings.
In essence, my CBT task was to think about my negative thoughts and then to rationally reframe them – perhaps by convincing myself that I hadn’t let people down and that even if I had then it really didn’t matter. But this caused my thoughts to just expand, filling my head even more. I’d replay an interaction from many years ago over and over in my mind and still conclude that I’d let someone down.
What I needed at that time was a technique to help clear my head of thoughts, not overload it, and for that I danced.
When I dance my head clears. It’s wonderful, and almost instantaneous. Focusing on the movement of the body, the music, the rich sensory experience and the cognitive immersion – stimulating memory, spatial awareness and emotion – overrides default patterns of thinking and feeling. It’s a release, both physical and mental.
The third episode was in 2021, when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis led to catastrophic thinking, extreme anxiety and depression. It impacted on my feelings, my relationships and the way I saw the future.
I didn’t receive any medical help with the psychological consequences of the cancer diagnosis – partly because the diagnosis came in the middle of covid-lockdown – and therefore it was difficult to access non-emergency medical care – and secondly because I had learnt how to self-manage the patterns of thinking that characterized my anxiety and depression.
While the medical team looked after my physical body, I used dance to manage my mind.
I used musical theatre dance to counter my catastrophic thinking. I used ballet exercises to control my breathing and anxiety and I used partner dancing to reconnect with my wife. My wife and I found it hard to communicate our true feelings at the time (we were both terrified) – but when we held each other in a dance we understood exactly how we both felt. The body is so good at communicating emotion.
Dancing can be wonderful for your mental wellbeing. Dancing stimulates four critical functions of human psychology – it influences our relationship with other people, it helps us to break away from stuck patterns of thinking, it’s enormously cathartic – helping us to release pent up emotions and it’s a physical activity which stimulates all of our senses.
If you’re struggling with your mental wellbeing and you’d like to use dance as part of your self-care regime, take a look at Move-Assure, the on-line Dance for Mental Wellbeing Programme.
Move-Assure was created by Dame Darcey Bussell – one of the world’s most famous ballet dancers and star of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing – and me, Dr Peter Lovatt – Dance Psychologist and author of The Dance Cure.
Access the Move-Assure Dance for Mental Wellbeing essential programme and save 30% with discount code: mentalwellbeing30
Dr Peter Lovatt
December 5, 2022
Not sure where to start?
Try the Move-Assure Dance for Mental Wellbeing 20-week programme with Dame Darcey Bussell and Dr Peter Lovatt.
Want to learn more about the amazing power of dance to transform lives? Read The Dance Cure: The surprising secret to being smarter, stronger, happier, by Dr Peter Lovatt
Want to learn more about the Psychology of Movement and train to be a Movement in Practice Facilitator? Then have a look at the full range of our courses at www.movementinpractice.com/courses
About the Author
Dr Peter Lovatt is an expert in dance and movement psychology. He is the original Dance Psychologist and is sometimes known as Dr Dance. He’s been studying Psychology, Movement and Dance for over 25 years. He is the author of The Dance Cure: the surprising secret to being smarter, stronger, happier (2020) and Dance Psychology: the science of dance and dancers (2018) and he is the co-founder of Movement in Practice. If you would like to train in the Psychology of Movement and qualify as a Movement in Practice Facilitator please visit www.movementinpractice.com
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