Dancing as a Coping Skill

Throughout the history of humankind, we can find evidence and examples of how people use dancing for celebration, story-telling, problem-solving, physical self-protection, and self-expression.  In addition to all of these benefits, dance can also be a natural coping skill.  Coping skills are necessary to build and develop throughout life, starting in early childhood when a child first encounters problems, stress, and other emotional adversities. 

Proof of this can be seen right now as the world copes with social distancing restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  Just look anywhere online and you’ll see people of all ages broadcasting videos of themselves dancing at home, either by themselves or with loved ones. As an example, the Today Show recently shared this story featuring an Italian couple dancing along with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire as a way of coping with the quarantine.

What is a Stressful Event?

Technically, the answer depends on a person’s view and interpretations of an event.  What one person may view as stressful may not be for another. What kinds of situations a person deems stressful may change over time.  As we grow older and wiser, what may have seemed stressful 1-5 years ago may not be stressful today.  Something is considered stressful when the needed responses of a situation go beyond the limitations of a person’s own emotional and mental resources.     

Stress According to Children

Children face stressful situations within their daily routine all of the time.  Remember, it’s all about how someone operates in the context of their own world and how they view a situation.  Stress for a child can be doing homework within a subject they haven’t grasped yet, a parent changing jobs, or learning how to make friends.

Imagine a time when you didn’t feel good (emotionally or physically), you actually knew why you felt the way you did, and you couldn’t hide your poor mood.  Have you ever been asked “what’s wrong?” from several people?  Not fun sometimes.  Now imagine a child not having a good day, but they haven’t developed the awareness yet to know why they are moody.  Better yet, they’re in denial that they are moody.  Let’s add on to this uncomfortable situation.  Many people are coming up to that child and asking them, “what’s wrong?”  Now that’s stressful.   

This Next Part is Extremely Important For All Age Groups! 

Stress can be beneficial if it’s taken care of in a timely manner.  It can motivate people and it can be an emotional signal that sheds light onto a deeper issue that needs to be addressed.  Relentless stress that occurs frequently and/or is not taken care of, can put a physical and emotional toll on our bodies.  We all have mind-body connections (some stronger than others).  What we think and feel can actually cause physical reactions in our body, such as tension.  What we do with our bodies and how we move can actually affect our mind and emotions.  They go hand in hand, for better or worse.  Let’s focus on the worse for a minute.   

When stress builds up over time, it can release stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) in the body.  These hormones are not meant to be experienced for long periods of time.  Long exposures of these hormones can cause hormone blood sugar imbalances, blood pressure problems, loss of muscle tissue density, loss of bone density, immunity issues, mental exhaustion, and memory issues, just to name a few.  These results can lead to additional diseases and psychological disorders.  All of these changes are due to the hormones’ long exposure causing the brain to change its physical structures and how it operates.  This can happen at any stage of life if stress is not addressed in a healthy way.  For a child or teenager, it can even cause development to be paused or rerouted down a different path. 

So what can children do?  Coping skills or coping mechanisms are the piece of the puzzle that we will focus on in this post.  Coping skills and coping mechanisms are used interchangeably in research and have subtle similarities and differences, therefore we will focus on the phrase “coping skills” to make it easier.   

What is a Coping Skill? 

Coping skills regulate difficult emotions in response to a stressful event.  To manage our emotions when under some type of stress, some examples of coping skills include using avoidance tactics, acceptance of the situation or emotions, distracting one’s self from the stress-causing event, using positive thinking, participating in mood enhancing events, and cognitive restructuring (changing the way we think that normally could lead to a sad result).   

The benefits of developing coping skills extend beyond dealing with specific difficult situations.  A use of healthy coping skills is actually a necessary part of development and releases stress hormones out of our bodies.  Many studies suggest that the development of coping skills increases emotional resiliency later in life. 

The more coping skills a person has and regularly uses, the better someone’s psychological development becomes.  They are less likely to develop clinical psychological disorders, and/or less likely to have unhealthy responses to stressful events.  It is important for young people to learn from stress and cope with it in a healthy manner in childhood so they are better prepared to cope with new kinds of stress that are bound to occur in adulthood.    

“A variety of coping skills,” that is the key.  One coping skill may not work for every setting or every stressful situation.  So, let’s add another coping skill to your student or child’s coping skill toolbox.    

Dancing as a Coping Skill 

Before we expose how dancing can work as an effective coping skill, we first have to talk about what dancing really is.  Dancing is an art, exercise, and language that uses the mind-body connection.  Language is a way of explaining difficult ideas and topics with or without sound.  Dance uses both verbal and nonverbal meanings, vocabulary, and rules to express a bigger picture that connects emotions and physical feelings that sometimes verbal words are not able to fully convey.  This allows people a more flexible and sometimes safer option to cope with problems.   

Dance as an Antidote to Stress

Dancing combats stress and can be used as a coping skill because it releases dopamine and oxytocin, while also rebuilding the brain.  Dancing absorbs detrimental stress hormones and releasedopamine, the pleasure hormone, instead.  When this hormone is released, people experience motivation and rewards which results in learning, improved mood, and increased memory. 

Partner dancing is an especially power way to release oxytocin (the bonding hormone), which makes us feel good.  Dancing helps develop the brain and increases growth of cells that prolonged stress would naturally break down.  This results in improved mental health, reduced muscle tension (due to that mind-body connection), and simply improves mood.        

Dancing, and especially partner dancing, can therapeutic as a response to a stressful event as a way to release tension, “explain” peoples’ emotions through movement, or simply as a distraction. Dance can even provide coping benefits before a stressful event occurs as it keeps the body and mind fully charged and prepared for anything.   

The Dancing with Class program is ideally suited to helping students access their naturally occurring dopamine and oxytocin.  In addition to the curriculum activities, our team of Teaching Artists are trained to create a supportive environment where kindness and joy can flourish.  Whether children and teens are in a classroom or at home by themselves, they can most definitely use dance as a coping skill to prepare for and deal with stress throughout their lives.


APA References

Compas, B. E., Jaser, S. S., Dunbar, J. P., Watson, K. H., Bettis, A. H., Gruhn, M. A., & Williams, E. K. (2013). Coping and emotion regulation from childhood to early adulthood: Points of convergence and divergence. Australian Journal of Psychology66(2), 71–81. doi: 10.1111/ajpy.12043 

Hanna, J. L. (2017). Dancing to Resist, Reduce, and Escape Stress. The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Wellbeing, 98–114. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199949298.013.5 

Pincus, D. B., & Friedman, A. G. (2004). Improving Children’s Coping With Everyday Stress: Transporting Treatment Interventions to the School Setting. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review7(4), 223–240. doi: 10.1007/s10567-004-6087-8 



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