Dancing and Healing the Nervous System

August 2, 2022


Rachel Havekost

Notorious for getting real low on the dance floor at weddings and a low threshold for unconventionally embarrassing moves, I am no stranger to the euphoria of getting my groove on.

When I got divorced at the peak of the pandemic in 2020, I found myself dancing alone in my Los Angeles apartment a lot

“You know,” my therapist told me when I shared this with her, “dancing and shaking like you do is actually a form of somatic therapy. You’re intuitively releasing stress, boosting happy hormones, and strengthening your nervous system.”

This surprised me. It certainly helped my mood to dance daily, and I did notice my digestion, mental clarity, and general optimism for life improve during those months in Los Angeles. But how could that be related to dancing? I thought. Surely dance can’t be a prescription for my current grief or past trauma.

So I did what I normally do when I don’t immediately buy into a new concept: I went to the science.

The Science of Dance, Shaking, and Mental Health

Have you ever seen a dog or horse shake after getting startled? This is because intuitively, animals shake their limbs to help pump the excess adrenaline and cortisol out of their bodies and reset bodily functions. 


Dancing and shaking are two branches of Somatic Experiencing: a body-based approach to healing developed by Dr. Peter Levine. Somatic Experiencing takes the focus off of thinking, talking, or mentally processing trauma or stress and places it on moving, breathing, or engaging the senses. 

Stress initiates a natural response in our nervous system: we pump out adrenaline and cortisol, increase heart rate, pause digestion, bypass memory storage, and prepare to survive. This is the fight/flight/freeze response in action. Unfortunately, many of us experience this response when facing stress that is not a matter of life or death, and our nervous systems are in a constant state of overdrive.

We can talk to a therapist all day about the stress of work, but unless we know how to teach the body to regulate, our nervous systems will continue to go into this state of panic. This can lead to poor memory, indigestion, anxiety, emotional lability, hormonal imbalance, impaired thinking, lack of focus, and so many other functions that we don’t realize are connected to a well-running nervous system.

The idea is to regulate the nervous system to bring our bodies back to equilibrium at the offset of stress to avoid future mental and physical issues.

But what about old trauma?

This is where dancing comes in. 

“When trauma strikes, the nervous system loses its ability to maintain a state of balance. The trapped energy from the traumatic experience causes the nervous system to rush to a state of fight, flight, or freeze — the ‘over’ or ‘underreaction’ [Somatic Experiencing] works to help bring the nervous system back on line by helping the individual restore their sense of safety. This can only happen when the body has a “biological completion” and the trauma energy has the opportunity to reintegrate back into the body.” 

The lasting impact of biological incompletions is what leads us to experience symptoms beyond basic stress:

“Stress is a baseline starting point for a lot of mental and emotional dysregulation,” writes Adair Finucane, LMSW

When our bodies go into this state of fight/flight/freeze and don’t have the opportunity to recover, we lose optimal functioning in our motor skills, cognition, memory, and sensory function.

While shaking can release this trauma energy and support a “biological completion,” dancing is what allows us to rehabilitate cognitive and physical functions that may have been damaged by an unbalanced nervous system.

Dancing is a way to re-gain impaired motor skills, cognition, and sensory function that may have been damaged by trauma or unresolved stress, which conversely strengthens our ability to manage future stressors.

Regardless of the actual movements, dancing with music, as one Columbia University neuroscientist put it, “is a ‘pleasure double play.’ Music stimulates the brain’s reward center, while dance activates its sensory and motor circuits.” 

When we dance, a complex cognitive network is fired up: we engage our sensory inputs, our motor system turns on to facilitate coordination and balance, and we activate our spatial awareness. 

“[Dancing] helps develop new neural connections, especially in regions involved in executive function, long-term memory, and spatial recognition.”

Even if you feel uncoordinated, unbalanced, or like you “can’t find the beat,” know that the act of dancing alone is strengthening your central nervous system so that you can become more balanced, coordinated, and aware of your surroundings.

“Safe brain is expansive and life feels vital and joyful. Survival brain creates misperception, ambiguity, and threat. The better we can manage our stress reaction, the easier we can keep out of survival brain. This takes time and effort and requires that we develop a tolerance of uncomfortable sensation in the body. If we are unable to tolerate the uncomfortable sensations, we try to numb them or distract ourselves from them with maladaptive behaviors. By growing our ability to tolerate discomfort, we gain the capacity to move through our challenges and the knowledge that we can safely come through the other side of a difficult experience.“

The Simplest Solution: The Body

Dancing allows us to strengthen our senses, executive function, and memory which means we become better equipped to stay present and mindful in the face of new stress.

Shaking is a simple tool you can use anywhere to biologically bring your body back to baseline after something stressful to prevent future symptoms.

This is why I love dancing--it’s free, I can do it anywhere, it’s socially acceptable (and encouraged), and it’s simple.

For inspiration, dance playlists, and more nervous system love, follow me on instagram and tiktok!

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