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A few years ago, framed by the skyline of Detroit, a group of about 15 children resettled as refugees from the Middle East and Africa leapt and twirled around, waving blue, pink and white streamers through the air. © Provided by Eat This, Not That! Young woman dancing to music.
The captivating scene was powerfully symbolic. Each streamer held a negative thought, feeling or memory that the children had written down on the streamers. On cue and in unison, the children released their streamers into the air, then sat down nearby. Then they gathered up the fallen streamers, which carried their collective struggles and hardships, threw them in a trash can and waved goodbye.
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The children were participating in a dance therapy activity as part of our team's research program exploring body-based approaches to mental health treatment in people resettled as refugees.
In 2017, our lab – the Stress, Trauma and Anxiety Research Clinic – began piloting movement therapies to help address trauma in refugee families. We are learning that movement may not only provide a way to express oneself, but also offer a path toward healing and lifelong strategies for managing stress.
On average, every year about 60,000 children are resettled as refugees in Western nations. Now, the refugee crisis resulting from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is bringing renewed attention to their needs. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that 6 million Afghans have been displaced over the past 40 years, and a new wave of tens of thousands are now fleeing from Taliban rule.
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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 in expressive ways is as old as humanity. But movement-based strategies such as dance therapy have only recently been given much attention in mental health treatment circles.
As a dancer myself, I always found the nonverbal emotional expression offered through movement to be incredibly therapeutic – especially when I was experiencing significant anxiety and depression in high school and college. Now, through my neuroscience research, I am joining a growing number of scholars working to bolster the evidence base supporting movement-based interventions.
One mind and body
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the incidence of anxiety and depression doubled in youth. As a result, many people are searching for new ways to cope with and handle emotional turmoil.
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LOL! Tyra Banks’ ‘DWTS’ Outfit Sparks ‘Jurassic Park’ Dinosaur ComparisonsShe stepped out in a Julian Mendez Couture creation that was very editorial in its design. The maroon minidress featured a high-low hemline, bedazzled gloves and, most notably, some extremely large and very in-your-face wing-like sleeves.
On top of the pandemic, conflicts around the world, as well as climate change and natural disasters, have contributed to the growing global refugee crisis. This demands resources for resettlement, education and occupation, physical health and – importantly – mental health.
Gallery: Secret Tricks That Make Your Life Better After 60, Says Science (ETNT Mind+Body)
Secret Tricks That Make Your Life Better After 60, Says Science
If you think getting older is a total drag, you should think again. Take it from those who are already there. According to a poll conducted by AARP, 67% of participants aged 60 and up are either satisfied or very satisfied with their life—and only 10% consider this period of their life a total bummer.
"The findings of this survey are further confirmation of something a lot of people, especially older people, know instinctively and that is that our upper ages can be great," AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins noted. "However, I think the survey also presents a fairly stark reminder that we're all faced by a lot of negative associations around aging—some of it's 'in the culture,' and some of it may be self-generated, but it's all damaging and, as this survey shows, it's often wrong."
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That being said, 10% is still quite a lot, in our opinion. If you're among the people over 60 who would like to be happier, healthier, and lead a more energetic and fulsome life, there are a number of lifestyle adjustments and decisions you can apply to your life that will do just that. Read on to learn more about some secret tricks for living a smarter life after 60 that you can start ASAP. And for more healthy living advice for your golden years, don't miss The Best Exercises for Building Stronger Muscles After 60, Say Experts.
1. Keep a Small Circle
We all know it's important to maintain friendships and an active social life. For older adults, though, research suggests that it isn't so much the quantity of friends one keeps but the quality. One study released in Psychology and Aging finds older adults exhibit higher levels of wellbeing when they keep a small circle of close friends as opposed to a long list of acquaintances. Moreover, older adults with a few close friends actually reported being happier in comparison to younger individuals with a long list of casual pals.
Another research project, this one published in PLOS One, compared the lifestyles of 80+ year olds with incredible cognitive longevity, judged to have the cognitive capacity of a 50-year old, to other 80-year olds deemed cognitively average. One major difference emerged: The cognitively robust participants reported having more close friends.
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"You don't have to be the life of the party, but this study supports the theory that maintaining strong social networks seems to be linked to slower cognitive decline," comments senior study author Emily Rogalski, an associate professor at Northwestern's Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center. For more great happiness hacks, read about how Spending $5 on This Will Provide You With Instant Happiness, Says Science.
2. Make Time for More Walks
We've already established that many older adults keep a busy schedule. Still, carving out some time each day for a short walk can provide a host of major health benefits. Research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds that walking briskly for just one hour per week can help prevent and mitigate achy and painful joints, stiff muscles, and arthritis. That works out to just nine minutes of walking per day. A small price to pay for improved mobility and ultimately independence in old age.
"This is less than 10 minutes a day for people to maintain their independence. It's very doable," says lead author Dorothy Dunlop, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University, in a release. "This minimum threshold may motivate inactive older adults to begin their path toward a physically active lifestyle with the wide range of health benefits promoted by physical activity." And for more on walking, make sure you're aware of The One Major Side Effect of Walking More Every Day, According to Science.
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3. Hit the Links (Seriously!)
If you aren't already an avid golfer, there's no time like the present to pick up a new putter. Even better, scientists report golfing may actually lower older adults' overall risk of death. According to the findings, which were presented at a recent American Stroke Association conference, regular golfers over the age of 65 (defined as golfing at least once monthly) had a significantly lower death rate (15.1%) over a 10-year tracking period in comparison to non-golfers (24.6%). Nearly 6,000 older individuals were included in this work.
Why is golfing so beneficial? Researchers theorize it provides a way for older adults to get outside, spend time with friends, and get in some physical activity with a low injury risk.
"While walking and low intensity jogging may be comparable exercise, they lack the competitive excitement of golf," says lead study author Dr. Adnan Qureshi, a professor of neurology at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. "Regular exercise, exposure to a less polluted environment and social interactions provided by golf are all positive for health. Another positive is that older adults can continue to play golf, unlike other more strenuous sports such as football, boxing and tennis. Additional positive aspects are stress relief and relaxation, which golf appears better suited for than other sports." For more reasons to hit the links, see here for the Secret Side Effects of Playing Golf, Says Science.
5. Exercise in the AM
It may not be a secret that exercise is a good idea, but you may be surprised by just how many benefits exercise can provide for older adults. Consider the findings of this study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Scientists discovered that just a single exercise session improved both working memory skills and cognitive performance immediately afterwards in a group of older adults (ages 60-80).
"One implication of this study is you could think of the benefits day by day," explains corresponding study author Professor Michelle Voss of the University of Iowa. "In terms of behavioral change and cognitive benefits from physical activity, you can say, 'I'm just going to be active today. I'll get a benefit.' So, you don't need to think of it like you're going to train for a marathon to get some sort of optimal peak of performance. You just could work at it day by day to gain those benefits."
As an added bonus, try and find time for your fitness routine in the morning. This study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine notes that AM exercise provides older adults with a major cognitive boost throughout the remainder of the day.
6. Seek Support
Speaking openly about mental health was a taboo for a long time. As such, it makes sense that many older adults who grew up in a much different society are very hesitant to admit it when they're struggling from a mental health perspective. This is supported by the findings of a recent poll that reports as many as six in 10 older Americans (ages 65+) who believe they're depressed don't seek out treatment or support. Another third are waiting to "snap out of it," and 61% say their issues "aren't that bad.
An Australian study came to similar conclusions, finding that over 40% of older Australians living with a chronic health condition are unlikely to seek out mental health support—even if they could really use some help.
There's no reason to suffer in silence in 2021. No matter your age, it's important to seek out support. "Seniors are not proactively asking for help and, even if psychiatric issues are identified, many refuse treatment due to the stigma surrounding mental health care that is especially prevalent among the older generation," says Dr. Parikshit Deshmukh, CEO and medical director of Balanced Wellbeing LLC in Oxford, Florida. "There is a misconception that depression is a normal part of aging, but it's not. And seeking help can not only improve lives, it can even save lives."
Interventions that offer physical activity and creativity components 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 may be well-suited to address not just the emotional but also the physical aspects of mental illness, such as pain and fatigue. These factors often contribute to the significant distress and dysfunction that drive individuals to seek care.
Why dance and movement therapy?
Body movement in and of itself is known to have a multitude of benefits – including reducing perceived stress, lowering inflammation in the body and even promoting brain health. In fact, researchers understand that the majority of our daily communication is nonverbal, and traumatic memories are encoded, or stored, in nonverbal 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 leveraged to tell stories, embody and release emotions and help people "move" forward.
Dance and movement therapy sessions place an emphasis on fostering creativity and adaptability in order to help people develop greater cognitive flexibility, self-regulation and self-direction. This is especially important because research shows that early-life experiences and how children learn to cope with them can have a lasting impact on their health into adulthood.
According to the Child Mind Institute Children's Mental Health Report, 80% of children with anxiety disorders are not receiving the treatment they require. This might be due to barriers such as clinician availability and cultural literacy, cost and accessibility, and stigma surrounding mental health conditions and treatment.
We are finding that dance and movement therapy and other group behavioral health programs can help fill important gaps. For instance, these strategies can be used in combination with 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 are showing that dance and movement therapy can build up children's sense of self-worth, improve their ability to regulate their emotions and reactions and empower them to overcome obstacles.
Much like yoga and meditation, dance and movement therapy has, at the root of its practice, a focus on deep breathing through the diaphragm. This intentional breathing movement physically pushes on and activates the vagus nerve, which is a large nerve that coordinates a number of biological processes in the body. When I work with kids, I call this form of breathing and nerve activation their "superpower." Whenever they need to calm down, they can take a deep breath, and by engaging their vagus nerve, they can bring their bodies to a more restful and less reactive state.
An analysis of 23 clinical research studies indicated that dance and movement therapy may be an effective and appropriate method for child, adult and elderly patients experiencing a wide array of symptoms – including psychiatric patients and those with developmental disorders. And for both healthy individuals and patients, the authors concluded that dance and movement therapy was most effective for reducing the severity of anxiety compared with other symptoms. Research from our team has also shown promise for the benefits of dance and movement therapy in reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety in youth who resettle as refugees.
We have scaled up these programs and brought them into the virtual classroom for six schools throughout the metro Detroit region during the pandemic.
Perhaps the most promising evidence for dance and movement therapy isn't, as the saying goes, what the eyes cannot see. In this case, it is what the eyes can see: children releasing their streamers, their negative emotions and memories, waving goodbye to them and looking ahead to a new day.
Lana Ruvolo Grasser, Ph.D. Candidate and Graduate Research Fellow, Wayne State University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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