Get help today 888-319-2606 or sign up for 24/7 text support.
American Addiction Centers National Rehabs Directory

The Healing Power of Dance Movement Therapy

As I worked more furiously towards the deadline of finishing the edits on my memoir about growing up with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder while verbally telling my story over and over again to others, I noticed things were happening to my mood and to my body that scared me.

What I soon came to realize was that, while Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and 12-Step Programs were all very effective in helping me recover, they didn’t target the way my body experienced and processed the trauma itself.

So, I embarked on a new journey to healing with EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) and Somatic Experiencing, which got me thinking about other methods that people might be using as an alternative for working out the way traumatic memories live inside of our subconscious brains, our muscles, and other body systems. And that’s how I stumbled on Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) as yet another approach to healing PTSD and its many systems.

The DMT Technique

DMT is a technique helps the body communicate and release its innermost thoughts and emotions. By linking the breath to various somatic awareness exercises and free ranges of movement, it becomes a useful tool for exploring difficult thoughts and sensations.

Therapists receive a specific certification of LCPC (licensed clinical professional counselor) and BC-DMT (board certified dance movement therapist), and strive to create a safe space for a person to reprocess the trauma that has been living in their body for years, and sometimes decades.  For these individuals, movement therapy is a first step into accepting the body and being present to the symptoms, rather than feeling fear, anger, or overwhelming emotions, according to says Erica Hornthal, a practitioner based out of Illinois.

“To learn the body’s physical triggers, like flight, fight or freeze, and how the cognition is affected, allows for clients to regain control over something that feels anything but,” she said. “I have seen clients so frozen by fear, numbed by trauma, and crippled by anxiety because words alone aren’t enough to express the underlying pain.”

Her first experience working with a client with PTSD was in an individual session, and the client reported high anxiety, blackouts, and fits of rage. When asked to explain how she felt in her own body, she mentioned feeling numb. Hornthal worked with her to bring awareness to different body parts and muscles.

Through a combination of controlled breath, isolated muscle movement, mindfulness, meditation and grounding, Hornthal incorporates organic movement to help her clients “repattern” the unhealthy automatic responses hardwired from past experiences.

“People living with trauma often don’t have the words to express their feelings, or find that their voices have previously been undermined or taken away. The body speaks its own language and releases the suppressed voice and emotions hidden deep within their bodies and minds, and dance movement therapy has the ability to free an individual from turmoil and give a quality of life to someone who doesn’t feel deserving.”

Working With the Music

In addition to the movement therapy, working with the music itself is also effective technique. Music therapy dates back to the early 1900’s, a phenomenon that started when musicians were sent to play for veterans in war hospitals overseas.

Because dance inherently uses bilateral stimulation, a technique used in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) it serves as a potential nonverbal form of exposure therapy.-Helaina HovitzBeing present with music and dance can serve important purposes, like breaking through the intrusive and “splitting” thoughts that occur when PTSD is present, and helping people stay mindfully in the present moment, rather than living in the past or the future, which can bring up feelings of fear, worry, and regret.

Because dance inherently uses bilateral stimulation, a technique used in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) it serves as a potential nonverbal form of exposure therapy.

Dr. Mike Dow, a psychotherapist and brain health expert, says that dance therapy can help patients tackle some of the deeper issues fueling their anxiety. “Therapy, like exercise or yoga, can be helpful in teaching patients to tolerate physical sensations in their body that have been viewed through a catastrophic lens, like, ‘What’s wrong with me? Am I okay? Am I going to have a panic attack?‘” he said. “Dance therapy can also help patients to tackle deeper issues fueling their anxiety.”

He also explained that when working with a dance therapist, one may be forced to confront certain issues. “Are you confident enough to dance in front of a stranger?  Can you communicate and work with others? Are you flexible? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches patients to become aware of these thoughts,” he said.

Let the Body Tell the Story

Each of Hornthal’s clients are introduced to movement therapy by tapping into their breath and body sensations – just recognizing, not judging. Then, the client enters into a progressive body scan exercise, and is invited to identify an emotion and then find where they hold it in their body.  This can be done using guided imagery, meditation, or even large motor movement.

“Clients often feel the need to tell their story, but either can’t find the words or the words are triggering” Hornthal said. “We use the body to tell the story.  This can look like a series of gestures, postures, or dance, which allows the body to process the story without re-traumatizing the client.”

One of Hornthal’s patients, Nandu, says that DMT helped her to heal the severe anxiety, grief, and depression that came along with her PTSD, and allowed her to show up for life as a single mom raising two teenage girls.

“It helped me understand the connection between mind and body, and how taking care of both is vital to my physical and emotional health,” she said. “It works wonders in combination with talk therapy to help us cope with the various challenges life throws our way.”

Because recovery from almost anything is typically most successful when it incorporates medical, holistic, spiritual, physical and emotional components, Dr. Dow cautions against abandoning other methods and incorporating dance therapy into a program that also includes components like 12-step programs, medication, and CBT.

“Some patients tend to use an all or nothing approach and look to one therapy, and I would caution people to avoid ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water,’” he says. “In many cases, depression and anxiety fuel addiction, and research has shown dance therapy to be effective in treating these issues, as it can help patients access the underlying issues that are associated with addiction.”



Images Courtesy of iStock

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.