Published September 29th 2016
Let me start off this blog by saying I am NOT a medical doctor or psychologist and I am NOT in any way suggesting that you should stop any medication that you are on without consulting you GP. I am writing this from the point of view of idea of ways of coping with depression and improving wellbeing.
I started thinking about this topic after watching the 2-part BBC documentary “the Doctor who gave up drugs”. This series of programmes followed Dr Chris van Tulleken (a medical doctor) as he tried to start a drugs free surgery, or more precisely are there ways of treating people safely without drugs. I have been aware that the pharmaceutical industry is facing a crisis as bugs become resistant to antibiotics due to over-prescription resulting in superbugs. However, the part of the programme that really hit me was that Dr van Tulleken looked at a website (looks like a BBC site) that stated that 1 in 5 people in Blackpool (I can only find an article on the BBC article from 2013 that says 1in 6 , but still a high number) were on anti-depressants and 5 million people across the UK. As the show states anti-depressants can have a long list of side effects and ideally should only be used as a short term fix.
As part of the show Dr van Tulleken helps a 24 year called Sarah who had been anti-depressants since the age of 16. He takes her cold water swimming as there is evidence to suggest this gives a sense of euphoria that would help her come off her meds. This got me thinking, can dance be used in a similar way as an alternative treatment to depression and why would it work?
Another recent BBC documentary found that dance can be good for physical health and a quick search in the published peer reviewed literature shows that there has been a large volume of research in to the effects of dance on mental health.
For this blog I’m going to mainly focus on depression. According to mind.org.uk “Depression is a low mood that lasts for a long time, and affects your everyday life” however, continuing to read the page shows that there are many types of depression but I’m not going to go into these at all but instead look at treatments. NHS.uk lists types of help available as: regular good night’s sleep, healthy diet, reducing alcohol intake, meditation, breathing exercises, counselling and regular exercise.
This is a nice start into giving an answer to my question as dancing is a form of exercise. NHS.uk does show a quote from a Dr Alan Cohen who says “Any type of exercise is useful, as long as it suits you and you do enough of it. Exercise should be something you enjoy; otherwise, it will be hard to find the motivation to do it regularly.” Also NICE recommends that people with mild to moderate depression take part in about three sessions a week, lasting about 45 minutes to one hour. However, a paper published by Blumenthal et al.  shows that “ antidepressants may facilitate a more rapid initial therapeutic response than exercise”. There are serval biological mechanisms that suggest why exercise results in a reduction in depressive symptoms, alterations in central norepinephrine activity , reduced activity of the hypothalamopituitary-adrenocortical axis , and increased secretion of beta endorphins  as well as serval psychological mechanisms including improved self-concept, and reduced dysfunctional or negative thought patterns . I will point out that while researching this blog I did come across several papers that discussed post exercise depression and this is something that should be considered.
Continuing on with the psychological negative thought patterns mechanism another reason why dancing could be a good alternative method of coping with depression is an increased sense of achievement. Whether it’s learning a new dancing style or a new move there is always a sense of achievement and overcoming a challenge. Achievement is strongly linked to positive mood activity, which reduce depression symptoms . There is a counter argument to this, if you struggle and negative thought patterns slip in, it could lead an increase in depressive symptoms. This happened in the ‘Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs’ episode two after Sarah has a panic attack when cold water swimming by herself.
To overcome this Dr Chris van Tulleken went swimming with her and this got me thinking about the effect of social interaction on depression. Dancing is very sociable especially if you’re participating in partnered dance and it can be intimate. I did read some literature on this topic and it is complicated to say the least. It seems social interaction is a double edged sword and in some cases it is very helpful and for others it can be detrimental. For those who suffer from a form of depression that results in anxiety when going to new places and meeting new people then dancing will result in negative thought patterns. However for others social interaction can result in positive thought patterns as it breaks the symptoms of the social isolation .
I have spent the past 5 years doing research and I have to say writing this blog has presented a challenge to my skills. I don’t think this topic can be covered and simplified down enough to fit into a thousand word blog. The arguments and the evidence are complicated and there are a lot of factors to consider. However, I think there is enough evidence out there that shows dancing is good for wellbeing both physical and mental providing you are having fun and enjoying it. Therefore I would say discuss it with you GP for a professional view and then if you have never danced look for some local dance classes and give it a go. (Obviously if you in Swansea check out Urban Tango Nights!) If you have any comments on this blog please post them below.