by Diana Hembree, Science Writer, Center for Youth Wellness
If you’ve watched “Madagascar,” you’re sure to have seen King Julien leading the jungle in a rousing chant of “I Like to Move It, Move It” while doing just that.
It turns out King Julien was onto something. If the iconic lemur were a scientist, he might have written a dazzling paper on what our ancestors already knew: Dance can help heal what ails you.
As it is, more and more researchers are studying the healing power of rhythmic movement on people who’ve experienced trauma from ACES, short for Adverse Childhood Experiences, such as abuse or neglect.
Among them is Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist and senior fellow at the Child Trauma Academy in Houston who advocates dance, drumming, walking and other rhythm-based movements to help kids with trauma.
In a book about trauma and the power of play, Dr. Perry explains that kids with developmental trauma can lose their ability to think when they feel threatened. This is because their fight-flight alarm goes off, he says, and stress chemicals quickly shut down their thinking brain (frontal cortex) as well as their emotional brain (limbic brain).
All that’s left working is the primitive brain. Fortunately, it responds well to rhythm and movement.
Repetitive rhythmic activity “elicits a sensation of safety,” Dr. Perry says. “Rhythm is regulating. All cultures have some form of patterned, repetitive rhythmic activity as part of their healing and mourning rituals – dancing, drumming and swaying.”
“The only way to move from these super-high anxiety states to calmer, more cognitive states, is rhythm,” he concludes. “This needs to happen before children see a therapist, because otherwise they may be too fearful and distraught to participate.”
The rhythmic activities, Perry has pointed out, can be anything from dancing, running, walking and singing to yoga, drumming and skate-boarding – many of which have resulted in “significant” improvement in trauma symptoms in his patients.
Some other programs have seen similar results.
Repetitive warm-up can serve much the same function, says Megan Bartlett, MA, a former soccer player and coach in Boston, Massachusetts, who formed the national organization “We Coach” to transform sports for kids who’ve experienced trauma.
“Warmups like 100 touches to the foot, thigh and head build up your skills, right? But we also see it as an intervention strategy to help kids self-regulate,” says Bartlett. “When kids are dysregulated, instead of telling them to sit quietly on the sidelines, the coach will say, ‘I noticed you were getting upset’ and pop them into the skill-building station for some more ‘vitamins’ (warm-ups). That way young people can go calm themselves down without feeling like they did something wrong.”
And all types of dance and sports appear to be helpful.
“I am asked how hip hop and skateboarding can help a child with depression or ADHD,” wrote Dr. Sarah MacArthur of the San Diego Center for Children on the center’s blog. “Yet 70 percent of the children [in such activities] showed improvement in symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD.”
What you can do
Traumatized children often need professional help, but here are some simple ways parents and teachers can incorporate rhythmic movement to help children with ACEs, according to a presentation by child development specialists at Arizona State University.
Rock and jump. For toddlers and small children with complex trauma, try “rocking, rocking, rocking … Linear input is generally calming,” according to the presenters. Their advice? Hold them while you rock in a chair or gliding rocker or let them jump up and down on a trampoline.
Walk like the animals. Remember your toddler pretending to be a T-Rex? Adding more animal movements such as bear-walking is a great idea, since swaying the head from side to side is also calming.
Take a walk outdoors. Researchers have found nature itself has a calming effect on mood, and walking is one of the movements that can help stabilize a child in distress. If you have small children, invite the older one to push the stroller (or a toy stroller).
Drum. Kids love drumming along to music on a drum or plastic container, and the rhythm helps with self-regulation.
Try yoga (for older children). “Exercise and mindfulness training helps the stressed out brain,” according to the Arizona State presenters. Since yoga provides both movement and mindfulness – two interventions that researchers have found useful for treating ACEs – it’s especially powerful.
Dobson, C., & Perry, B.D. (2010). “The role of healthy relational interactions in buffering the impact of childhood trauma,” in Working with Children to Health Interpersonal Trauma: The Power of Play (E. Gil, Ed.), The Guilford Press, New York, pp 6-43.
Perry, B.D., and Hambrick, E. (2008). The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT), Reclaiming Children and Youth, 17 (3) 38-43.
Perry, B.D. Born for Love: The Effects of Empathy on the Developing Brain. (2013, March 8). Presentation at Annual Interpersonal Neurobiology Conference “How People Change: Relationship & Neuroplasticity in Psychotherapy,” UCLA, Los Angeles.
“Wellness Innovations Transform Children.” (2013, June). San Diego Center for Children.
Diana Hembree is a science writer for the Center for Youth Wellness. She is an award-winning journalist who has worked at Time Inc., the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Energy Bioscience Institute and has written or edited for Forbes, HealthDay, the Washington Post, PBS Frontline, Vibe and many other places. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.