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Can dance/movement therapy really heal trauma?

“Consciousness is only possible through change; change is only possible through movement.” -Aldous Huxley

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Oct 14, 2021 UPDATED

Have you heard of the idea that the mind and body work as one and whatever you're experiencing in your mind can be a reflection and experience in your body, too? 

Think about the last time you were truly excited. 

How was your body responding? Maybe you had “butterflies” in your stomach or you were smiling ear to ear. I’m going to assume that your posture was upright, shoulders relaxed, heart and chest opened, steadily breathing. 

Now, let's think back to the last time you were sad, anxious, or depressed. 

What was going on in your body to show these feelings? Perhaps you experienced muscle tension or a heavy overall feeling. Maybe your stomach was in a knot, or you were holding your breath, moving rigidly, or not at all. 

In both scenarios, your cognitive mind and your body were communicating your emotional experience. One could say that your body, your vehicle for moving through the world, is the center of our human experience. 

What is dance/movement therapy (DMT)? 

Dance/movement therapy (DMT) is a relatively new form of mind/body psychotherapy defined by the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) as the therapeutic “use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual, for the purpose of improving health and well-being.”

Unlike a dance class where the focus is on choreography, DMT is facilitated by a trained clinician and is process oriented. It can be done in a group setting or one-on-one.

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of a woman with black hair holding her hand over her face.

What happens during a dance/movement therapy session? 

Dance therapy sessions look very different, depending on the clinician, client, and setting because DMT encompasses so many different techniques and styles. Each therapist develops a unique practice that is tailored to a specific client's needs. 

During a dance therapy session, a therapist will analyze a person’s specific needs by observing their movements, body language, nonverbal behaviors, and emotional expressions. Dance therapists use movement as their primary method of observation, evaluation, and treatment.

A session may include interventions like improvisation, body scans, attention to bodily sensations, breath work, and/or the use of music and props to identify where the body has stored trauma.

Do you have to be a dancer to benefit from DMT?

No, you don't have to be a dancer to benefit from DMT. You just have to be curious and willing to try it. DMT, like other forms of therapy, is a process and it takes time to experience results. 

Integrating the use of DMT allows you to get to know your body and all of its innate knowledge; you may uncover things that you might not have otherwise with traditional verbal therapy alone.

Sometimes, words are not enough and giving your body a voice may open up communication and insight not only to the relationship you have with yourself, but to how you relate and move (literally and figuratively) with the world.

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of a woman holding a bouquet of flowers.

What does the research say about DMT? 

The amount of research on DMT is impressive. Tons of studies examining the effectiveness of DMT on dozens of ailments ranging from high-blood pressure to cancer have been published.

Most recently, there have been several large-scale studies that support the benefits of DMT for depression and anxiety, including:

  • A 2019 review concluded that DMT was an effective form of treatment for adults with depression.

  • A 2019 meta-analysis (a study that combines multiple studies) found that not only does DMT improve quality of life, interpersonal, and cognitive skills, it also reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression.

There is also some research that suggests that people who dance regularly are less likely to develop dementia. And, in a study of people with chronic heart failure, DMT was more effective than traditional exercise in terms of “exercise capacity.” 

Another study examined the effectiveness of DMT in obese women trying to lose weight and found that DMT was effective in combating emotional eating. DMT is also commonly used to treat trauma, specifically PTSD. 

How does DMT help treat trauma?

Trauma is an experience of actual or perceived threat to one’s safety, be it physical, emotional, sexual, or other. Traumatic stress is the bodily and cognitive response to the experience of trauma. Over 70% of U.S. adults will experience a traumatic event at least once in their life.

Extreme traumatic stress can lead to a sometimes debilitating disorder known as post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.  PTSD symptoms can include intrusive memories, negative changes in mood, and responses, and, when untreated, can persist for years or even decades after the traumatic incident. 

During a trauma, blood flow to certain areas of your brain is cut off, making it difficult to put thoughts into words. So while your brain may only remember pieces of the experience, your body remembers it somatically. 

This is why you may startle easily, jump when someone taps your shoulder, or have the feeling of being “on alert” after experiencing trauma.  

Unconsciously, trauma creates emotional and mental reactivity which stays stored in the body, showing up as tension in the way we move or interact with others. 

Movement can create new, positive experiences in the body and brain. This is called neuroplasticity and it’s our brain's way of rewiring itself to create new neural pathways which allow for different ways of coping, engaging, and being.

trauma stat

DMT invites clients to be in their bodies and helps them to be in the present moment, instead of being in a state of dissociation or living in the past. Creating new, safe experiences in the body assists in calming the nervous system and rebuilding socialization and body awareness.

Article originally published Oct 13, 2021. Updated Oct 14, 2021.

Sources 

American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA). (2011). FAQ. Adta.org website: https://www.adta.org/faq 

Karkou, V., Aithal, S., Zubala, A., & Meekums, B. (2019). Effectiveness of dance movement therapy in the treatment of adults with depression: A systematic review with meta-analyses. Frontiers in Psychology, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00936

‌‌Karkou, V., & Meekums, B. (2017). Dance movement therapy for dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.cd011022.pub2. 

Koch, S. C., Riege, R. F. F., Tisborn, K., Biondo, J., Martin, L., & Beelmann, A. (2019). Effects of dance movement therapy and dance on health-related psychological outcomes. A Meta-analysis update. Frontiers in Psychology, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01806. 

Mayo Clinic. (2021). Post- traumatic stress disorder. The Mayo Clinic.https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967.

Meekums, B., Vaverniece, I., Majore-Dusele, I., Rasnacs, O. (2012). Dance movement therapy for obese women with emotional eating: A controlled pilot study,

The Arts in Psychotherapy, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aip.2012.02.004

Neto, M. G., Menezes, M. A., & Carvalho, V. O. (2014). Dance therapy in patients with chronic heart failure: A systematic review and a meta-analysis. Clinical Rehabilitation, 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269215514534089

Olff, M. (2017). Sex and gender differences in post-traumatic stress disorder: An update. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, https://doi.org/10.1080/20008198.2017.1351204 

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