The Power of Dance: Coping through Trauma
I think it has been no secret that I have had a complicated relationship with dance over the years. From a young girl hell-bent on pursuing a career, to a grown woman getting injured on the brink of success, and deciding to shun the art form to avoid dealing with physical and emotional stress...yeah, it's been complicated.
But in the midst of the pandemic, hit with personal loss and grappling with my own battle with PTSD, I was compelled to face my dance demons head on. And what I had discovered was that dance had been with me all along.
Artistic expression has been used to heal from traumatic experiences since ancient times. The tools of dance can be especially useful because they unify the body and creativity as healing resources when words are not enough. The use of dance as a healing tool is rooted in the knowledge that body and mind are inseparable. Dance provides feelings of unity, harmony, and empathy.
For all that survive the ordeal of serious trauma at any age, the challenge is not only to heal the body, but also the mind and soul. The possibility of experiencing safety and pleasure in the body are impaired. If the body has been wounded, long after the body has healed survivors continue to cope with emotional devastation, as well as renegotiation of their identities in bodies that have suffered profound changes. Recovery can be all the more difficult because the innate life coping skills of the survivor are seriously affected. Whatever the cause, traumatic experiences remain embedded in our bodies. Overwhelming emotions and shocking memories can be suppressed and repressed in an attempt to survive and recreate a sense of stability. Patterns of dissociation and chronic states of shock can impact the individual’s ability to live a healthy, satisfying life. Trauma experiences are held in memory as sensations and images, which cannot be accessed through words. These memories are located in the primitive parts of the brain, and cut off from conscious awareness.
For me, I suffer PTSD - Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I've been diagnosed twice, most recently after a traumatic experience I had visiting my hometown in August 2020. According to best selling author Bessel van der Kolk, the split off or dissociated trauma memories are at the core of PTSD symptoms. They manifest in three areas of behavior. First, uncontrollable, intrusions of the trauma appear as flashbacks, dissociative states, hallucinations and intense emotional and/or physical reactions triggered by cues within the person or in the external environment. Second, they cause persistent avoidance and numbing to experiences associated with the trauma, as well as much of life. Third, they perpetuate a state of being hyper-alert and on edge. The general goals for treatment are: to help individuals feel stable and safe in themselves and with others; to work through and integrate the traumatic memories; and to assist in reengaging fully in their lives and in relationships with others.
After being diagnosed with PTSD, I started having leg and back pain, which I have never experienced before. In addition to the PTSD, I obtained Sciatica in the lower left side of my back and into my left leg. I thought this was weird, how can sciatica be in connection with PTSD? According to the Centers for Advanced Orthopedics, sciatica is a common condition that can occur after a traumatic accident and can be triggered by emotional anxiety. Their explanation is that in times of stress, the brain deprives the nerves in the lower back of oxygen, resulting in symptoms such as leg pain, weakness, and other electrical sensation. It almost became a near impossibility for me to go back to dance.
My anxiety and depression was at an all time high, and I had do something. I started seeing a therapist and I began Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy as an interactive psychotherapy technique to relieve my psychological stress. Once I started finding success in that, it was to the orthopedic I go.
Starting the New Year, I slowly started getting back into my online dance classes. I was finally able to move my body where it was supposed to go. I thought this was an impossibility for me. I would repeat the teacher's words in my head and I started practicing outside of class again. Matching the movement with language became a meditation in connecting my mind with my body, a meditation in embodiment. It was a whole new experience in a body I'd felt disconnected from for so long.
John Hopkins medicine states the arts may help PTSD survivors ground themselves in the present where they can safely process and place their trauma in the past. Different art forms, like painting, music, and dance, have been consistently found to activate a wide swath of sensory processing regions in the brain and enhance the perception of visual, auditory, and touch cues. This sensory engagement during art-making helps survivors integrate disconnected or fragmented memories associated with PTSD and develop a coherent story of their experience. Art and music also help survivors give voice to their experience when words fail, as is often the case in trauma. When I started escaping into my music, I would listen to a song and my mind would immediately wonder off into choreography. I realized by choreography again, I was increasing my body's awareness, and I was providing myself a safe environment and noticing the support given by parts that are not traumatized and bringing gentle awareness to traumatized areas. Depending on the song I was using, I felt an increases the ability to self soothe, identify, and manage the intensity of feeling states arising in my body. It was almost a sort of outlet for me to express how I was feeling in a way I didn't have to explain myself. By activating the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, these art forms facilitate the processing of emotions nonverbally and may compensate for the deactivation of these brain areas during PTSD. These alternate modes of expression can help survivors reclaim their ability to communicate and restore their self of sense on their road to recovery.
After searching for peace, the answer was in front of me all along. Dance is magical, primitive, communal and a healthy and integral way to exist in harmony with yourself and others.
Dance combines community, athleticism and spirituality for optimal healing potential. The body experiences lift through the athleticism of dance movement while the mind benefits from learning intricate combinations and applying them rhythmically to the music. Going a level deeper, dance operates on a spiritual level as its practitioners must emotionally connect with themselves, the music, their dance partners and their audiences. We might push our bodies to the limit and beyond. We might suffer in sickness, injury and isolation, anxious about the state of the world today and tomorrow. But if we let ourselves dance together (or, for now, virtually together), we can also heal together even in our cramped living rooms.