A few years ago, framed by the Detroit skyline, a group of about 15 children resettled as refugees from the Middle East and Africa jumped and twirled, waving blue, pink and white banners in the airs.
The captivating scene was powerfully symbolic. Each streamer contained a negative thought, feeling or memory that the children had written on the streamers. At the signal and in unison, the children dropped their banners in the air, then sat down nearby. Then they picked up the fallen banners, which carried their collective struggles and struggles, threw them into a trash can and waved goodbye.
The children were participating in a dance therapy activity as part of our team’s research program exploring bodily approaches to mental health treatment in people resettled as refugees.
In 2017, our laboratory – the Stress, Trauma and Anxiety Research Clinic – began management of movement therapies to help deal with the trauma of refugee families. We learn that movement can not only provide a means of self-expression, but also offer a pathway to healing and lifelong stress management strategies.
On average, each year approximately 60,000 children are resettled as refugees in Western countries. Today, the refugee crisis resulting from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is once again drawing attention to their needs. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that 6 million Afghans have been displaced in the last 40 years, and a new wave of tens of thousands are now fleeing the Taliban regime.
I am a neuroscientist who specializes in understanding how trauma reshapes the nervous system of developing youth. I use this information to explore creative arts and movement-based therapies to treat stress and anxiety. The instinct to move the body expressively is as old as mankind. But movement-based strategies such as dance therapy have only recently received a lot of attention in mental health treatment circles.
As a dancer myself, I have always found the non-verbal emotional expression afforded by movement incredibly therapeutic – especially when I suffered from significant anxiety and depression in high school and college. Today, through my research in neuroscience, I join a growing number of academics working to strengthen the evidence base supporting movement-based interventions.
One mind and one body
In addition to the pandemic, conflicts in the worldas good as climate change and natural disasterscontributed to the growth global refugee crisis. This requires resources for resettlement, education and occupation, physical health and, above all, mental health.
Interventions that provide components of physical activity and creativity at a time when children and people of all ages are likely to be sedentary and with reduced environmental enrichment can be beneficial during the pandemic and beyond. Creative arts and movement-based interventions can be well suited to address not only the emotional but also the physical aspects of mental illness, such as pain and fatigue. These factors often contributing to significant distress and dysfunction that lead people to seek treatment.
Why dance and movement therapy?
Body movement itself is known to have a multitude of benefits – including reduce perceived stress, reduce inflammation in the body and even promote brain health. In fact, researchers understand that the the majority of our daily communication is non-verbaland traumatic memories are encoded, or stored, in non-verbal parts of the brain. We also know that stress and trauma live in the body. So it makes sense that, through guided practices, movement can be harnessed to tell stories, embody and release emotions, and help people “move on”.
Dance and movement therapy sessions focus on stimulating creativity and adaptability to help people develop greater cognitive flexibilityself-regulation and self-direction. This is particularly important because research shows that early childhood experiences and how children learn to cope with them can have a lasting impact on their health into adulthood.
According to Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report, 80% of children with anxiety disorders do not get the treatment they need. This may be due to barriers such as clinician availability and cultural literacy, cost and accessibility, and stigma surrounding mental health issues and treatment.
We find that dance and movement therapy and other group behavioral health programs can help fill important gaps. For example, these strategies can be used in combination with the services people are already receiving. And they can provide an accessible and affordable option in school and community settings. Dance and movement therapy can also instill coping skills and relaxation techniques that, once learned, can last a lifetime.
But does it work?
Our research and that of others shows that dance and movement therapy can strengthen the sense of self esteemimprove their ability to regulate emotions and reactions and empower them to overcome obstacles.
Much like yoga and meditation, dance and movement therapy have a focus on deep breathing through the diaphragm at their core practice. This intentional breathing movement physically pushes and activates the vagus nerve, which is a large nerve that coordinates a number of biological processes in the body. When I work with children, I call this form of breathing and nerve activation their “superpower.” Whenever they need to calm down, they can breathe deeply, and by engaging their vagus nerve, they can bring their body to a more restful, less reactive state.
[Get the best of The Conversation, every weekend. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.]
An analysis of 23 clinical research studies reported that dance and movement therapy may be an effective and appropriate method for children, adults, and the elderly with a wide range of symptoms, including psychiatric patients and those with developmental disabilities. And for healthy individuals and patients, the authors concluded that dance and movement therapy were most effective in reducing the severity of anxiety relative to other symptoms. Our team’s research has also promise shown for the benefits of dance and movement therapy in reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety in young people resettling as refugees.
We have intensified these programs and brought them in the virtual classroom for six schools in the Detroit metro area during the pandemic.
Perhaps the most promising evidence of dance and movement therapy is not, as the saying goes, what the eyes cannot see. In this case, it’s what the eyes can see: the children release their streamers, negative emotions and memories, say goodbye to them and look forward to a new day.