Dance The Pain Away

How dance and movement therapy can be an effective form of ongoing treatment.

dance-poseScratch the image of Katy Perry dancing in unison with costumed sharks or the smooth moves of Usher in a music video (if that’s who came to mind). This type of dance isn’t the choreographed kind. In fact, it’s a psychology.

“While dance is the foundation of the work in dance therapy, it’s really about finding the movement of the body,” says Kris Larsen, dance therapist and instructor in the dance/movement therapy and counseling department at Columbia College in Chicago, Ill. “We’re not necessarily having people dance, but having them find an inner impulse or movement to bring them into a liveliness that expresses symbolically what they’re going through emotionally.”

The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA), which promotes the field of dance/movement therapy defines it as “the psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration of the individual.” Based on the premise that the body, mind, and spirit are interconnected, the ADTA states that dance/movement therapy is effective for people with developmental, medical, social, physical, and psychological impairments.

A Dance for Addicts


Dance/movement and yoga therapist Emma Barton, who practices body-based psychotherapy and teaches at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., uses movement to help those dealing with addiction. Barton works one-on-one with clients, but also holds a weekly mindfulness-based movement therapy session that teaches participants to witness both their internal and external experiences. The group-therapy content was developed from her 11 years living in Asia studying yoga therapy.

“People who are struggling with addiction are uncomfortable with change, and are used to repeating behaviors over and over again. At the same time, they are aware that these repeating behaviors don’t serve them, but they find it nearly impossible to stop the cycle without help,” says Barton. “Movement-based therapies help them become aware of what they can and cannot control. When you learn to be a witness, you can begin to nonjudgmentally observe your internal emotional and sensory experiences, as well as recognize how your behaviors impact your external environment.”

During her sessions, addicts learn to be present in the moment through the process of movement. “A lot of times addictive processes are tied to anxiety about the future or something that hasn’t happened yet, or about how you think you are perceived through the eyes of someone else. When you ask a client to become aware of their physical or sensory experience in the moment, it reminds them to redirect out of that anxiety state into a more manageable and realistic place, the present moment,” Barton notes.

Barton adds that while traditional psychotherapy tends to focus solely on cognitive processes, discounting the intelligence of the body, dance/movement therapists are trained to recognize the integration of both body and mind, and that the body has its own intelligence and can actually be more authentic in expressing an internal state.

“Anxiety is a felt sense—there is something happening in the body, and that’s how it is recognized. We rarely pay attention to the sensory experiences that are informing us because we cognitively label them rather than fully explore them. What we should do is learn to stay more present to the intelligence of the body rather than get lost in thoughts of fear and mind-reading,” says Barton.

The best metaphor for this, adds Barton, is how people handle driving on an icy road. When the tail of the car starts to slip to the right, most people naturally turn away from the slipping direction, even though they need to turn toward it in order to better stabilize the car. “This is what we do with sensory experiences that scare us—we turn away. Rather, behavior change starts with the willingness to look at the thing that scares us. Turn towards your fear, and you’ll stabilize your car,” states Barton.

So is true for Mark, a 60 year old client of Barton’s, who began taking opiates at 13 to numb out abuse. Mark also struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his childhood trauma. “I found that 12 steps, SMART recovery, and group therapies didn’t resonate with me. When I met Emma, she brought meditation and body-center movement to treatment,” he says. “I think PTSD is the real reason behind my drug problems, and so the physical body centered stuff seems to really be effective for me. After so many years of doing opiates I forget about basic needs like food, sleep, and being in the moment, and like many opiate addicts, I internalize the societal labeling of being a useless junkie. I get in my head too much and it just doesn’t work, but staying centered in my body brings me out of my head and forces me to work through unpleasant feelings from my past,” he says.

In a typical movement-therapy session, Barton offers clients, like Mark, directives that help them to better witness themselves in the present moment. When she asks them questions about their physical expressions, it prompts them to wonder within the present moment, and teaches them that they can change their internal experience through the combined effort of movement and self-awareness.

“People who experience substance addiction have a difficult time with self-regulation. Through experiential processes, a person experiencing substance addiction can learn methods to redirect uncomfortable sensations, feelings and thoughts back to the present moment, which is the only place that they can directly impact,” explains Barton. Read more “the fix”…


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