Have you ever been in a dance or exercise class, when you began doing a particular movement or the activity intensified and you became overwhelmed with emotion(s)?
- Maybe you were doing an upper-body movement, and you noticed that you felt tight in your chest and upper back muscles, then a rush of sadness came over you.
- Perhaps you were working on hip tilts or hip circles, when all of sudden you felt very anxious, uncomfortable, and self-conscious.
- You might have been just watching your reflection in the studio mirror when your mind floods with unpleasant thoughts about your appearance or ability.
You are not alone!
Being “triggered” can happen while doing any physical activity, including and especially during belly dancing.
Though we usually associate dance classes and physical activity with enjoyment, pleasure, and fun, Alice Boyes Ph.D., author of “The Anxiety Toolkit” says sometimes the physiological effects of activity like “raised heart rate, sweating, and other physical sensations” can trigger those with past trauma and anxiety.
The first time I experienced “being triggered” was while I was in martial arts classes during my first few rounds of sparring i.e. fight training.
At the time, I was taking Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and several types of Kung Fu. I was even training all the expected punches and kicks.
But all that practice didn’t prepare me for the real fight, on the inside.
As I started fighting, feelings from the past came over me like a heatwave of fear constricting and tightening my chest and stomach.
As my practice partner threw controlled punch after punch, my eyes became flooded with tears that I hid under my headgear.
I gathered the smallest bit of composure I had and pretended as if I was just sweating. But beneath, I was shaking – rocked by the old feelings that were resurfacing from past physical abuse and bullying.
I was completely blindsided by my own reaction, as it seemingly came out of nowhere.
After this [ what I could only describe as a] post-traumatic event, I started looking into it and discovered what had happened and how common these emotional flashbacks actually are for those with past trauma.
Eventually, I was able to work through my feelings and began reaching deeper levels of healing for myself.
After having gone through this experience, I was also able to more easily recognize these occurrences in my students.
As I delved more deeply into my research, I came across some interesting correlations.
Of course, by just observing students and talking with them, I knew some [with past trauma] did experience increased unpleasant emotions, memories, and thoughts while working with certain areas of the body.
Sometimes the physiological sensations again, like high heart rate and sweating can elicit more anxiety, but quite a few students would experience heightened emotions when working with particular areas of the body that often correlated with where the trauma took place or where in the body the emotions are blocked or stored.
For me, I was fine with being kicked in my sparring class. It was the punches that triggered me, because of the type of physical actions I received in the abuse I encountered.
What’s most intriguing is even though belly dance [and other forms of exercise] have the capacity to trigger, they also provide great potential for healing.
In fact, trauma healing modalities that involve movement, like TRE (Trauma Releasing Exercise) praise the effects of shaking or “tremoring” the body to release blocked emotion.
Is it any wonder why so many dancers find so much healing from belly dance?
If you experience something like what I’ve described, here are some things to consider:
- Pause, assess, but don’t stop dancing. This experience is temporary as you are literally “shaking things up”. Your body is sensing this disruption ( i.e. something new) and your mind is bringing up any pattern it finds familiar, but it will get better as you recognize, relax, and release. The 3 Rs. Research has shown while exercise may be triggering at the beginning of the new activity, it is also one of the BEST methods of healing trauma. So, don’t be too quick to assume the experience is a sign that this is the wrong activity for you. It might actually be exactly what you need.
- Think about this as your body’s way of telling you you might have some more emotional work to do. It’s just a signal from your body telling you that it remembers an action or feeling “like this”, and now you can consciously reassure, nurture, and send love to that part of yourself.
- Remember belly dance class is a safe place. The vast majority of teachers and other students want you to find healing and succeed. It is a great place to allow yourself to feel comfortable working through unpleasant feelings. I’ll bet you will likely feel much better after each class, once you recognize what’s happening.
- Share your experience and accept support from your dance teacher, mental health professional, and trusted mentors.