Bellydance U

PTSD: What A Belly Dance Teacher Should Know

Image via Flickr by Storebukkebruse

By Talia, cofounder of Omi Mahina, a tribal fusion duet in Rocklin, Ca.

Dance offers particular benefits to somebody with PTSD and you never know when somebody with PTSD might walk through your studio door.

A Little Background

What is post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD? The short answer is this: a complex condition that affects the body, thoughts and emotions of a personwho has been exposed to an event where they thought they might die or be harmed, or they feared the same for another person or loved one. One in four people who are exposed to a trauma can be expected to develop full-blown PTSD, but many people can experience the painful symptoms without meeting full criteria for the disorder.

image via Wikimedia Commons

Symptoms can be disabling and include panic attacks, intense anxiety, depressed mood, looping thoughts of the negative event, hyper-vigilance, nightmares and insomnia. People will also suffer physically with upset stomach, headaches and body pain. Even worse, the survivor often feels unable to connect with loved ones because the brain-recognition part of the brain switches subtly to see almost all human faces as a potential threat. The body releases a cascade of fight or flight chemicals even in the presence of the safest of familiar friends. These chemicals override rational thought out of necessity (safety!) and survivors can find their support systems shrinking.

What does PTSD have to do with teaching dance?

So…all very academic, right? The reality is that people who have survived a traumatic event are living, working and playing alongside each of us, trying to piece their lives back together. The good news is that dance offers particular benefits to somebody with PTSD and you never know when somebody with PTSD might walk through your studio door. I’ve found that most dance instructors are very empathic people who are fantastic at reading emotions and body language and I wanted to offer a few thoughts about how we as dance instructors can, through awareness, create an even safer space for our students who might have survived a trauma.

Why Your Class is Good For Survivors

In addition to being a dance instructor, I have a day job that I adore. I am dually licensed as a marriage & family therapist and licensed professional clinical counselor. I am also certified in EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), a cutting edge and well-researched body/mind technique to help people with PTSD.

I have a private practice in California where I am referred some of the more extreme cases of trauma due to my training. From line of duty deaths to survivors of hostage or sex trafficking situations, I’ve seen a lot of amazing survival stories. I recommend some type of body-oriented work for every single patient I work with because it’s critical to re-train the body to strengthen the parasympathetic (calm, rest & digest) response and help people learn to feel safe in their own skin. 

Learning to dance requires concentration, focus, and being present in the moment and in one’s body. Image via Flickr by Morgan Rains

Like any exercise, dance offers the benefits of stress reduction but I think dance is particularly helpful because of the mindfulness component. It’s hard to be looping on those negative thoughts and feelings when you are listening to the music, counting in your head, and trying to get that new choreography just right. Dance combines the important healing tools of exercise, breath work and music with a sense of community. Without realizing it, a survivor is reprogramming her body each time she steps into a class.

Working With Students Who Have PTSD

To try and make my class a safe space for survivors and I follow these guidelines:

The good news is that if you hold a safe space for a survivor to be herself, explore feeling comfortable in her body again and have a safe community for her to visit with each week that in itself is amazing healing work.

Focal image via Flickr by storebukkebruse