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Dance Movement Therapy ‒ An Effective Therapeutic Outlet For Managing Teen Anxiety

Written by: Michelle Terry, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

The teenage years are characterized by enormous change and personal growth. While this time period can be exciting and enriching, it can also be volatile and confusing. As individuals evolve and adapt to the challenges associated with increased workloads, complex social dynamics, newfound independence and concerns about the future, they often endure and experience heightened stress, increased anxiety and shifting moods.

A colorful drawing of a dancing people.

In this context, therapists can equip teens with positive adaptive coping mechanisms and empower them to improve their overall mood and happiness. Often, these outlets or coping mechanisms are unique and personal to the individual and require in-depth exploration in the therapeutic space. Teens are increasingly searching for and engaging in positive outlets to manage their mental health (Beachside, Teen Treatment Center, Beachsideteen.com September 19, 2019). By doing so, they are demonstrating an impressive ability and desire to be their own best advocates and active participants in their mental health and well-being. This is an important phenomenon for me both as a therapeutic professional and parent, as I have two teenage children. Knowing just how passionate I am on this topic, my seventeen-year-old daughter, Lara, partnered with me on this article. Our goal was to better understand the utility of physical activity, particularly dance, as a coping mechanism and its influence on mental health. Over the past few decades, a lot of work has been done to assess the beneficial psychological effects of physical activity. Beyond providing individuals with a helpful distraction or a sense of purpose, physical activity triggers the release of hormones such as serotonin, our body’s natural mood-boosting chemical, which can have beneficial effects over a sustained period of time (Annamarya Scaccia, Healthline August 19, 2020).

As part of an independent research project, Lara recently conducted a detailed study with the objective of better understanding how dance, which is her favorite physical outlet, can positively impact the mood and happiness of teens. In summary, the study found that a structured dance class routine improves mood, leaving participants feeling inspired, proud of themselves, creative and happy (Lara Terry, Exploring the Impact of Dance Classes on the Mental Well-Being of Adolescents, August 2022). I am sharing the full study and her detailed findings with the hope that it might inspire others to look to dance or other productive physical activities as a means to help manage their mental health and navigate the complexities of being a teenager.

Exploring the Impact of Dance Classes on the Mental Well-Being of Adolescents


Lara Terry

Abstract


Adolescence is a time period full of growth and maturing, as well as vulnerability and impressionability. Many adolescents struggle with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and professionals have begun to look into relations between mental health and dance. The goal of this study is to examine how participation in dance classes affects one's well-being/ mood. The present study includes 14 participants between 14 and 18 years old (M = 16.64, SD = 1.22). The abbreviated version of the Profile of Mood States Questionnaire was used to construct a survey including multiple choice and short answer questions. After the participants received and completed the survey, their responses were analyzed quantitatively and qualitatively. T-Tests revealed significant differences between average ratings of mood states “Happiness” and “Depression,” “Tension” and “Calmness,” “Happiness” and “Anger,” and “Vigor” and “Depression.” Additionally, participants reported a mood improvement after taking a dance class in comparison to their mood before. Participants highlighted dance as being an outlet for evoking creative, inspirational and happy feelings. The results of this study support the hypothesis that dance has a positive impact on one's mental well-being/mood. This study can be further used to create dance-related resources for adolescents struggling with their mental health. Keywords: Dance, Mood, Adolescents, Well-Being


Introduction The term “adolescence” refers to the transition between childhood and adulthood and typically encompasses the period of time between the ages of 13 and 20 years old. As young children enter the stage of adolescence, they experience physical changes, as well as develop more advanced cognitive skills and a greater sense of identity and independence. As adolescents confront new developmental milestones, they also experience new social (and sometimes familial) conflicts, which can take a toll on mental health. Very common are the body image and self-esteem struggles that accompany physical changes during puberty. Other factors like social media, home life, and relationships with peers can contribute to psychological challenges.

Globally, one in seven 10-19-year-olds experiences a mental disorder (World Health Organization, November 2021). Anxiety disorders and depression are especially prevalent among this age group. In 2020, 5.6 million or 9.2% of kids had been diagnosed with anxiety problems, and 2.4 million or 4.0% had been diagnosed with depression (Georgetown University Health Policy Institute, March 2022). Covid has only increased the numbers. As mental health providers seek out ways to support teenagers in their growth and development, dance is increasingly being regarded as a promising physical, artistic, social, and emotional outlet. Dancing also provides adolescents with various important skills. Not only does dance improve physical abilities and build body muscles, but it helps to build brain muscles as well. Through practicing and learning routines, dancers exercise the memory centers of their brains and strengthen their concentration. Dance also helps develop new neural connections, especially in regions involved in executive function, long-term memory, and spatial recognition (Harvard Medical School, 2015). On the emotional level, dance can provide a freeing and safe space to express one's feelings through movement. Dancers can deal with difficulties by releasing their feelings through the steps in their routines. The physical movements of dance have also been shown to reduce levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Physical exercise elevates levels of dopamine and endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that are responsible for feelings of pleasure and happiness (Ghosh 2018). For adolescents, finding a sense of community and belonging is very important. Dance provides people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities an open community where dancers can build relationships and find a place where they can be themselves. Previous research has pointed to the beneficial impacts of dance as a mental health intervention. One study done in Sweden on a group of 13-18-year-old girls found that after an 8-month dance intervention, the self-rated health of the group improved (Duberg, Moller, Sunvisson 2013). Another study done on a group of 40 high school students involved putting the students in dance movement therapy. The researchers found that the therapy was effective in beneficially modulating concentrations of serotonin and dopamine and in improving psychological distress in adolescents with mild depression (Jeong, Hong, Lee, Park 2005). A third study used a group of 14-year-old girls and put them in 5-12 hours of dance classes during a 6-12 week period. After the time was up, the researchers concluded that the 6-12 week period of dance classes had a positive impact on the well-being of the group of girls (Connolly, Quin, Redding 2011). While these studies were beneficial in producing conclusive results about dance and mood, there are some gaps that the present study aims to fill. Previous studies have used dance interventions to examine the effects of dance on the mood and well-being of adolescents. These successfully focused on the short-term effects of participating in dance classes. The present study aims to include a different perspective by looking at the experiences of adolescents who have been dancing for the majority of their lives. As a result, researchers can ascertain the long-term effects of dance beyond just a short-term intervention. The question that will be used to guide the research is: How does participation in a dance class affect one’s mental well-being/mood? The hypothesis is that participation in a dance class has a positive impact on and improves one's mental well-being/mood. To study this question, a questionnaire will be created, including both multiple choice and short answer assessments of feelings before and after dance classes. The questionnaire will be sent to a group of 10-15 adolescent dancers. Once the questionnaire has been filled out by the dancers, the results will be analyzed and used to draw a conclusion about the research question.

Methods

Participants This study included 14 participants (nfemale= 12, nnon-binary= 1, nmale = 1) between the ages of 14 and 18 years old (M = 16.64, SD = 1.22). The participants live in New York and New Jersey and all attend/attended Broadway Dance Center, a dance school located in New York City. All participants have a considerable dance background, with years of experience ranging from 2-16 years (M = 11.29, SD = 3.45 ). Materials The questionnaire used in the present study was developed based on the abbreviated version of the Profile of Mood States questionnaire (POMS) developed by Douglas M. McNair in 1971. The POMS questionnaire is widely used in the context of clinical psychology, psychotherapy, medicine, and sports science. The abbreviated version of the POMS by J.R. Grove contains 32 words/statements that describe mood states (such as “Lively,” “Confused,” and “Fatigued”); these words/statements are organized along 8 dimensions so that 4 words/ statements fall under each dimension (dimensions include: Anger, Tension, Vigor, Fatigue, Confusion, Happiness, Calmness). Participants are asked to rate their level of each mood state on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being“Not At All” and 5 being“Extremely”). In order to shorten the length of the questionnaire for the present study while ensuring that enough data will be collected, eight of the mood states were removed from the questionnaire. The 8 dimensions of the questionnaire remained the same size, as the words were strategically removed in order to keep the number of words in each dimension the same. Thus, each dimension in the present questionnaire corresponded to three questions (rather than four on the initial questionnaire). Along with this test, the questionnaire also includes questions about demographics and additional short answer questions which ask participants to elaborate in words about their experiences in dance.

Procedure The survey was created on Google Forms. It was sent to the participants in June of 2022 electronically. Participants were informed that their responses would be de-identified and that by responding to the survey, they were consenting to have their data used in the present analysis. The data was then transferred to a spreadsheet. Data Analysis Plan To analyze the data, average scores and standard deviations will be calculated for each dimension on the questionnaire. Then, independent sample t-tests will be conducted comparing the average ratings for the happiness dimension versus the depression dimension, the tension dimension versus the calmness dimension, the happiness dimension versus the anger dimension and the vigor dimension versus the depression dimension. In addition, participants' short answer responses will be analyzed qualitatively for themes.

Results


Quantitative Analysis Descriptive statistics for the participants (N=14) are contained in Table 1 (see Appendix). The survey asked participants to rate how often they had been bothered by feeling down, depressed or hopeless in the past 14 days on a scale of 1-5 (M= 2.214, SD= .579), 1 being “Not at All” and 5 being “Every Day.” Participants were also asked to rate how often they had been bothered by feeling agitated or anxious in the past 14 days on the same scale (M= 2.785, SD= .802). In general, the population falls on the lower end of the scale, meaning they were not significantly bothered by the mentioned feelings in the past 14 days. Participants were then asked to rate how their mood before a dance class generally differs from their mood after a dance class on a scale from 1-3 (M= 2.642, SD=.745), 1 being “Mood Became Worse,” 2 being “Mood Stayed the Same,” and 3 being “Mood Improved.” Participants were then asked to think back to the last time they took a dance class, and rate how their mood before the class differed from their mood after the class on the same scale (M= 2.786, SD=.426). T-Tests were conducted to compare average ratings of participants’ mood states based on their responses to the modified POMS scale. On average, participants reported a significant difference between ratings for the mood states of “Happiness” (M = 3.476, SD= .917) and “Depressed” (M= 1.333, SD= .526), p<.05 (See Figure 1). Additionally, on average participants reported a significant difference between self-ratings of “Tension” (M= 1.585, SD= .836) and “Calmness” (M= 3.179, SD= 1.275), p<.05 (See Figure 1). Between ratings of “Happiness” (M = 3.476, SD= .917) and “Anger” (M= 1.571, SD= .941), on average there was a significant difference, p<.05 (See Figure 1). Finally, there was a significant difference between mean ratings of “Vigor” (M= 3.50, SD= 1.10) and “Depression” (M= 1.333, SD= .526), p<.05 (See Figure 1, Appendix).

Qualitative Analysis

Long answer responses were read and analyzed for themes. Themes were based on each question of interest from the survey,and quotes were extracted from the transcripts.

Favorite style / Favorite aspect of dance


The most common participant responses to being asked their favorite style of dance were contemporary and hip hop. 9 out of 14 participants mentioned contemporary as their favorite or one of their favorite styles of dance, and 4 out of 14 participants mentioned hip hop in their answer. Participants highlighted contemporary as providing an outlet to express themselves. For example, one participant wrote that contemporary dance allows them to “sit in some deeper emotions like sadness or anger and express [themselves] without words.” When describing their favorite aspect of dance, 6 out of 14 participants talked about the community and connections it fosters. For example, one participant wrote how “the love [they] have for dance and each other makes dancing together an even more synchronized and welcoming experience.” Several participants also mentioned the ability to be creative as one of their favorite aspects of dance.

Feelings after a dance class


Common answers to how participants generally feel after taking a dance class were accomplished, happy and inspired. For instance, one participant stated how class usually leaves them “feeling better about [themselves] after class even if [they] didn’t nail the combo or perform [their] best.” When asked to think back to the last time they took a dance class, 14 out of 14 participants had a positive takeaway from their experience. Participants used words like “thankful,” “proud,” and “content” to describe their feelings. Participants’ general reflections and specific reflections about the most recent dance class were overall similar to each other.

Discussion


The purpose of this study is to answer the question, “How does participation in a dance class affect one’s mental well-being/mood?” The hypothesis was that participation in a dance class positively impacts one's mental well-being/mood. The study found a statistically significant difference in the average ratings of 4 different pairs of mood categories; “Happiness” was significantly greater than “Depressed,” “Tension” was significantly greater than “Calmness,” and “Happiness” was significantly greater than “Anger,” and “Vigor” was significantly greater than “Depression.” In addition, average ratings of moods before and after a dance class revealed a general trend of moods improving. These results combine to support the study’s initial hypothesis. The qualitative results add insight into why dance helps to improve mood. According to the participants’ survey responses, dance generally leaves students feeling inspired, proud of themselves, creative, and happy because of their enjoyment of the class. It is important to note that according to the survey, the participants were not reporting significant levels of anxiety or depression, and thus, the results of the study cannot be generalized to a clinical sample. It is also important to note that all dancers included in the study had been dancing for several years, which raises the question of whether the effects of the study would be more extreme for people who had never experienced a dance class before.

Limitations


There are several limitations to the present study that could have impacted the results. The study's sample size (N = 14) was rather small and limited, making it harder to be representative of and generalize results to a whole population. All participants came from the same dance studio, and the majority of participants identified as female. In addition, since the participants were required to self-report in the survey, they may have held back in their answers or provided information that was not 100% accurate. In addition, it is not clear from the present analysis whether a single dance class could improve mood or whether it was the experience of engaging in dance over time that benefited the individuals in the study.

Future Directions


The present study has many possible future directions. Since this study supports the notion that dance can improve mood, the results from the present analysis can be used as a basis for interventions that can help adolescents that are struggling with their mental health.

Adolescents can be encouraged to participate in dance classes as an alternate method of coping with mental health issues. As the present study was predominantly female, a possible follow-up study could examine a group of non-female participants to see if the results correspond with those of the present study. Additionally, as the present study was made up of dancers, another follow-up study could examine a group of non-dancers and see how the results differ and whether the same benefits of dance are present for non-dancers new to the art form. Since all of the dancers included in the present study live in New York City and attend the same dance studio, another study could be conducted that includes dancers from various states/studios for an increased variety of experiences. Finally, a follow-up study that included clinically depressed or anxious participants would provide additional information as to how dance impacts mental health for those struggling with more severe symptomatology.

Appendix

Figure 1. Average Rating of each POMS Mood Category.

Data were taken from 14 participants. Participants rated each mood category question on a scale of 1-5 (1 = not at all, 2 = a little, 3 = moderately, 4 = quite a bit, 5 = extremely). The graph shows the average rating for each mood category. Error bars show 1 standard deviation away from the mean in both directions.

Table 1:

Descriptive Statistics For Participants (N = 14)

Description

M

SD

Age

16.64

1.22

​Hours of Dance per Week

12.46

​5.9

Years of Dance Experience

11.29

​3.45

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics For Participants


Data from 14 participants. Participants input answers to each question in the survey, and answers were then analyzed and used to calculate means and standard deviations.


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Michelle Terry, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Michelle Terry is a Clinical Psychotherapist working out of a private practice in NYC. She is passionate about helping her clients thrive and live happier by positively addressing challenges and stresses that result from everyday obstacles, complex social and romantic relationships, school/work life imbalances and major life transitions. As a Solutions-Focused therapist, Michelle believes in establishing healthy and clear objectives, while working closely with her clients to develop a concrete plan to reach their goals. She is extremely dedicated to each and every one of her clients and derives such joy seeing them live their lives in a way that promotes the most social, emotional and physical happiness!

 

References:

  • Duberg, A., Hagberg, L., Sunvisson, H., & Möller, M. (2013). Influencing self-rated health among adolescent girls with dance intervention: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA pediatrics, 167(1), 27-31.

  • Connolly, M. K., Quin, E., & Redding, E. (2011). dance4 your life: exploring the health and well-being implications of a contemporary dance intervention for female adolescents. Research in Dance Education, 12(1), 53-66.

  • Ghosh, S. K. (2018). Happy hormones at work: applying the learnings from neuroscience to improve and sustain workplace happiness. NHRD Network Journal, 11(4), 83-92.

  • Harvard Medical School (2015). Dancing and the Brain. Retrieved from, https://hms.harvard.edu/news-events/publications-archive/brain/dancing-brain

  • Jeong, Y. J., Hong, S. C., Lee, M. S., Park, M. C., Kim, Y. K., & Suh, C. M. (2005). Dance movement therapy improves emotional responses and modulates neurohormones in adolescents with mild depression. International journal of neuroscience, 115(12), 1711-1720.

  • World HealthOrganization (November 2017). AdolescentMental Health. Retrieved from, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health

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