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Should Psychotherapy Embrace the Arts?

Christy Matta, M.A.

Most people enjoy music of some sort. And a natural extension of music is dancing. I've had many friends who rated the quality of a wedding based on how much they and the rest of the crowd got up and danced. Certainly many of us have experienced our moods lightening and problems seeming to slip away, at least momentarily, when we've given ourselves over to music and dance.

record player with images of people dancing behind itBut when you think of psychotherapy, you don't usually think of music, dance and a good time. Therapy generally consists of hard work, talk and delving into difficult topics. Some treatments, like Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), do incorporate music and dance into strategies to improve mood. In DBT music can be used as a way of distracting yourself from intense emotion, soothing and calming yourself and changing how you feel by listening to uplifting music when you're feeling down. DBT would also recommend dance to those who enjoy it, as a strategy to increase positive emotions and joy. Music and dance don't replace the hard work of therapy, but are seen as useful skills to be employed to help manage your emotions.

Recently I've come across several studies that report on the positive effects of music and dance on our mental health. A study in the journal Arts in Psychotherapy suggests that music may improve psychological functioning. After 8 weeks of music therapy, patients with mild to moderate depression had less depressive symptoms than patients who received psychotherapy alone.

Studies in both Germany and at the University of New England found that dance lowers levels of stress hormones and significantly lowers levels of depression. Dancing the Tango, in particular, lowered levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. One researcher suggested that dancing the Tango required focus and attention similar to that needed for the practice of mindfulness.

Although recent research supports music and dance as strategies to decrease stress and depression, it's not yet time to throw in the towel on traditional therapy. These studies do suggest that the arts can enhance psychological treatment and assist in improving mood.