The use of dance movement therapy for the healing of trauma
Tannis Hugill MA, RCC, RDT, ADTR
Artistic expression has been used to heal from traumatic experiences since ancient times. The tools of Dance Movement Therapy can be especially useful because they unify the body and creativity as healing resources when words are not enough. The use of dance as a healing tool is rooted in the knowledge that body and mind are inseparable. Dance provides a direct experience of shared emotion on a preverbal and physical level, providing feelings of unity, harmony, and empathy.
Trauma is the result of an assault on our being and the consequences of trauma are complex and far-reaching. They may include complete disruption of life, isolation from others, anxiety, depression, PTSD, dissociative disorders, addictions, eating disorders, and a range of physical illnesses, as well as a loss of identity due to dislocation from the body.
For all that survive the ordeal of serious trauma at any age, the challenge is not only to heal the body, but also the mind and soul. The possibility of experiencing safety and pleasure in the body are impaired. If the body has been wounded, long after the body has healed survivors continue to cope with emotional devastation, as well as re-negotiation of their identities in bodies that have suffered profound changes. Recovery can be all the more difficult because the innate life coping skills of the survivor are seriously affected.
In the developmental trauma of childhood abuse, the individual experiences a rupture in attachment bonds, the vital connections between child and caregivers. This obliterates the trust essential for healthy emotional growth. The survivors’ judgement is impaired and she/he may either indiscriminately attempt to create an attachment with any person, including a perpetrator, and/or withdraw into the felt safety of isolation. (Johnson, 1987) Sexual, physical and emotional abuse affects the development of healthy embodiment, and the possibility of experiencing security and pleasure in the body. The impact of these traumas renders individuals feeling helpless, hopeless, and filled with shame. The ability to self-soothe may also be damaged, as well as the capacity to feel grounded and centred in the comforting flow of pleasant physical sensations. (van der Kolk, 2002) . This makes it all the more difficult to cope with feelings of terror, powerlessness, rage and grief.
Whatever the cause, traumatic experiences remain embedded in our bodies. Overwhelming emotions and shocking memories can be suppressed and repressed in an attempt to survive and recreate a sense of stability. Patterns of dissociation and chronic states of shock can impact the individual’s ability to live a healthy, satisfying life.
Trauma experiences are held in memory as sensations and images, which cannot be accessed through words. These memories are located in the primitive parts of the brain, and cut off from conscious awareness. The conscious level of memory is narrative, symbolic and verbal, managed by the frontal lobes of the brain. The split off or dissociated trauma memories are at the core of PTSD symptoms. (Van der Kolk, 1994) They manifest in three areas of behavior. First, uncontrollable, intrusions of the trauma appear as flashbacks, dissociative states, hallucinations and intense emotional and/or physical reactions triggered by cues within the person or in the external environment. Second, they cause persistent avoidance and numbing to experiences associated with the trauma, as well as much of life. Third, they perpetuate a state of being hyper-alert and on edge. (American Psychiatric Association, 1994)
The general goals for treatment are: to help individuals feel stable and safe in themselves and with others; to work through and integrate the traumatic memories; and to assist in re-engaging fully in their lives and in relationships with others. (van der Kolk, MacFarlane & Alexander, 1996)
Dance Movement Therapy is an important resource for treatment of trauma because it is helpful for rehabilitation of the body. It provides vital tools for reconnection to the body and to the self. It gains access to the implicit memories that are encoded in the primitive brain as visual, sensory imprints because it uses the language of the body, moving beneath words which often block access to conscious awareness. (Johnson, 1987) The creative play space provides a distance from intense feelings so clients can have a safe way to work with them.
One of the Creative Art Therapies, Dance Movement Therapy is used with individuals, and groups of children, adolescents and adults. In a safe, supportive environment each person can discover their body as a source of pleasure, and self-knowledge. As participants learn to trust their bodies, they are more able to trust others and engage in healthy relationships.
Dance Movement therapy groups always begin and end in a circle. This basic shape
provides stability where individuals can feel equally connected to each of the other group members. The leader encourages group members to listen to the guidance of their own bodies and never pushes people to engage beyond their own comfort level and physical ability. Groups always begin slowly with a physical warm-up. Participants may be invited to listen to the movement of their breath as they do gentle stretches which are adapted to the needs of the group. Often music is used to inspire and engage with melody and rhythm. As participants become comfortable with themselves and each other the leader will guide them in structured movements that encourage spontaneous self-expression and playful interaction with others. The group closes with a relaxation time and verbal sharing of the whole experience.
Dance Movement Therapy addresses treatment in the following ways:
- Increases body awareness by providing a safe environment to carefully enter the body, noticing the support given by parts that are not traumatized and bringing gentle awareness to traumatized areas.
- Allows the body to be experienced as a whole, developing trust in the information and wisdom it offers
- Teaches a felt sense of the body, creating a safe container, a resource, in which the memories can be slowly and safely experienced and integrated
- Increases the ability to self-soothe by contacting the flow of pleasurable sensations moving through the body
- Teaches the ability to connect and ground the body to the support of the earth
- Develops the ability to identify and manage the intensity of feeling states
arising in the body
Renegotiations and integration
- Shapes information emerging out of the body as dreams, fantasies, images, and feelings into dance/movement expression in the presence of the witnessing therapist who helps to control the intensity of expression so it is not overwhelming and re-traumatizing
- Helps to accept the body and increase self-esteem by creating a positive body image
- Helps relieve the tension and anxiety of hyper-arousal
- Masters the traumatic material with the use of creative play
- Uses movement, sound, and imagination to assist in integrating trauma memory imprints into symbol and story, thus enabling the individual to discover the meaning of this experience in their lives
Repairing relationship and reentry into the world
- Encourages individuals to re-member and accept the painful experiences through the process of sharing their creative movement expressions with others
The body awareness practices and simple rhythmic movements experienced in Dance Movement Therapy connect participants with their bodies and assist the expression of feelings. Communicating non-verbally unites people in the most profound manner possible. Gaining access to one’s creativity, core vitality and personal power develops increased self – acceptance, and encourages compassion and empathy with others. Being mirrored by another who understands allows people to feel seen and accepted in their suffering, knowing they are not alone. The Dance Movement therapy circle dissolves the shards of trauma, and offers the possibility of feeling whole and held lovingly within the flow of life that moves through all.
Dance Movement Therapy
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