Depression and Dance

For quite some time I’ve noticed that my mental health and my ability to enjoy dancing interact in bizarre and often unpredictable ways. Movement is often quite good for depression and anxiety, particularly movement that requires just enough though to get you out of your head. Dance in particular has a way of turning into a kind of exhilarating protest against depression, and during some of my very worst times it has been the only way that I can find enjoyment in my life.

But oftentimes depression itself can keep you from finding any enjoyment in the activity because you’re second guessing yourself, you’re comparing yourself to others, and for me, I was even looking at how skinny other women looked in their nice dresses or cute shorts rather than paying any attention to my dancing at all.

I’ve often been left in a space where I contemplate going out to dance utterly uncertain whether it will save me from a bad day or leave me spiraling downwards even further. So why is it that sometimes dance is a lifesaver and sometimes it’s destruction? Perhaps even further complicating the matter is that I’ve noticed recently when I go out to dance and I’m in a decent mood, I am a much better dancer. I have better dances and because of increased confidence and the ability to play around with my partners, I simply have more fun. It’s left me questioning whether I was even capable of improving beyond a certain point when I was in the midst of depression.

As one of my coping mechanisms, dancing has been incredibly helpful. But how on earth do I figure out when it’s a good idea to hit the dance floor and when I should try to avoid it? How do I feel good about dancing when I’m down if I know that I’m not going to be my best dancer self? What is the point of dancing if there’s all this ridiculous complicated bullcrap going through my mind in a kind of calculus of “will I be ok” every time I go out?

These questions hit on one of the most difficult elements of depression across the board: it can be deeply unpredictable, and coping mechanisms are often unreliable. I keep dancing because oftentimes it’s the best I’ve got. Sometimes, the high from a good night of dance can keep me going for a week, looking forward to the next time I’ll get it. Considering the fact that when I’m in a bad place nearly anything can send me into a shame spiral, it’s certainly worth the risk if there’s even a chance that I might get the positive benefits.

The longer I’m depressed, the easier it becomes to match coping mechanism to mood, and paying attention to what sets off certain bad spirals can do a lot to make things like dance a more positive thing overall. I’ve started to get the feel for whether I have the energy to become fiercely pissed off at my depression and drop everything to dance, or whether I am trapped in my head and exhausted. For me, going out alone is the best idea when I’m in a bad place because it means I never have to try to converse, I just have to dance. This is part of using coping methods effectively: figuring out when and how to use them.

Part of learning coping skills is also learning when to abort the mission. This is one of the difficulties of using something that you love as a way to improve your mood. You don’t want to abort the mission. You want to find the good dance, the happy moment, the high. That isn’t always possible, and accepting that is hugely helpful to cutting off bad spirals. Sometimes you will go out and it won’t feel good and you’ll just have to leave.

But what about the interaction of my ability to dance and my depression? Well of course i’m better when I’m not body checking every few seconds. The dance that I do is about fun, so of course I can embody the feeling of swing music significantly better when i’m not in a mood directly antithetical to it. But that doesn’t mean that I’m a bad dancer or that I’m not learning anything when I dance in the midst of depression. It means that I’m learning how to navigate my body, learning steps, learning how to follow better, even if I can’t get into the musicality in the same way. I can focus on a different set of skills here. And in many ways that is fun. It’s a practice of getting out of my head and working on discrete skills rather than trying to work on the more artistic aspects of dance.

It is a fallacy of depression that one should only do things if one will be good or perfect at them, or that one must always be their very very best (or keep trying to be better always). Sometimes it’s ok to simply do something for fun with no eye to improvement (gasp). Sometimes it’s ok to just be where you are today rather than trying to be better or the best version of you. Improvement is a great goal, but it doesn’t need to always be the goal. In this case, I probably am improving something when I dance while depressed: my coping skills and my ability to manage my emotions. Points for me!

Swing dancing is really an expression of energy, body, and connection. These things are all incredibly hard when you’re depressed but when you can capture them they can go huge lengths to making things better. That’s why it’s just easier to dance when you’re in a better place, but why it’s so important to keep trying when things are bad. That’s also why it’s so complicated: all of these elements are deeply out of whack in the midst of depression and can change at any time. But this might also be a case where overthinking isn’t helpful: checking in with my emotions before I head out for the night, learning to accept where I am and  leaving early if I need to may be all the more tools I need in this toolkit.

Because seriously: I love dancing. I’m not giving it up to my mental illness anymore.

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