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Trauma Movement Therapy and How It Heals

Dance/movement therapy (DMT) is defined by the American Dance Therapy Association as “the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual for the purpose of improving health and well-being.”

Developed as early as the 1940s, trauma movement therapy is a holistic approach to health that connects and heals the mind, body, and spirit. DMT is a powerful communication tool that can help individuals reconnect with their bodies after enduring physical or emotional trauma.

Dance/movement therapy is used with patients suffering from physical and mental ailments. While this includes mental illnesses—such as eating disorders, dissociative disorders, PTSD, and depression—this article will focus on DMT’s effectiveness in healing physical traumas, such as multiple sclerosis, arthritis, strokes, and other traumatic brain injuries, as well as Parkinson’s disease. Both sports, such as dance, and innovative technology can help patients who may have felt devastated at first diagnosis but are now able to live a life much closer to the one they want.

How Does Trauma Affect the Body?

Whether physical or emotional, trauma has a dramatic effect on both the body and the mind. Upon encountering a perceived threat, the nervous system tells our bodies to produce stress hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol.

This stress response is called “fight or flight.” It was developed in a primal part of our brain called the amygdala that evolved long, long ago to help humans respond to immediate threats—you know, like sabertooth tigers.

While this immediate rush of stress hormones can help us stay alert and focused in times of need (as it once did for our ancestors), frequent activation of the nervous system causes wear and tear on the body over time. And while trauma has a profound effect on the physical body, it also severely affects the mind.

Traumatic events can leave us feeling unsafe, confused, helpless, depressed, anxious, and isolated. Coupled with a physical disability that limits mobility, this mental state can make life seem grim.

The Benefits of Trauma Movement Therapy

Because trauma affects both the mind and body, it is difficult to know exactly how to heal from trauma. This is not a disease with a one-step cure. Instead, therapists need to take a holistic approach to help patients feel at home in their bodies and minds again.

Dance/movement therapy is especially useful in unifying the body and mind when it’s too difficult to communicate emotions verbally. When we are infants, movement is our first form of communication. Encouraging patients to express themselves through movement is crucial in repairing the mind-body connection, and doing so through dance, for instance, invokes creativity and breathes life and joy back into the healing process.

Tannis Hugill, a registered B.C. Clinical Counsellor, registered dance and drama therapist, and creator of sacred theatre, explains the goals of dance/movement treatment in her article, “The use of dance movement therapy for the healing of trauma.”

She says, “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.” Assistive tools like cycling devices, for instance, allow for trauma movement therapy when a user is suffering from mobility issues and can’t move or walk very much—so that virtually anyone can participate and reap the full advantages of this practice.

Safety

Trauma can make us feel betrayed by our bodies because they aren’t able to operate as they “should.” Dance/movement therapy and trauma movement therapy devices offer the opportunity for trauma patients to safely experience their bodies again in a joyful way. DMT is a gentle way for patients to acknowledge where their body is holding pain or tension and what feels good.

Renegotiations and Integration

Patients are able to use dance/movement therapy and movement therapy devices to express emotions in a healthy new way. This allows patients to increase self-esteem and create a positive body image. With movement therapy devices, patients with severe physical limitations are able to get back to physical activity and set healthy goals for their therapy routines.

Repairing Relationships and Reentry Into the World

One of the toughest experiences post-trauma is to accept what has happened and learn how to move on. This step is crucial for patients to accept their painful experiences and learn how to express themselves in a new, meaningful way.

Trauma Movement Therapy for Patients With Limited Mobility

For end users with physical limitations from traumas that decrease or completely limit their mobility, such as stroke and Parkinson’s, the passive feature of movement therapy devices allow patients to maintain movement and exercise. These innovative movement therapy devices allow those with severe mobility limitations to still experience the many benefits that trauma movement therapy offers—even when standing or lying down in bed.

How Trauma Movement Therapy Helps the Body Process Trauma

Dance/movement therapy is biopsychosocial, meaning it looks at the interconnection between biology, psychology, and socio-environmental factors. DMT views the patient as a whole entity and encourages physical movements to reflect the emotional state and changes in patterns of movement—so that they ultimately lead to changes in the psychosocial experience.

Studies show that dance/movement therapy can help patients facilitate relaxation and a parasympathetic nervous system; enable symbolic self-expression; play with different ways of experiencing and encountering the world; and learn how to be present in one’s body.

How Movement Therapy Helps Arthritis Patients

Studies show that dance/movement therapy can improve joint range of motion and muscle strength in arthritis patients. It is also reported to be able to help decrease the extent of disease symptoms and reduce severe anxiety and depression symptoms. This is especially true for rheumatoid arthritis patients, who have been shown to demonstrate decreased pain and swelling and improved overall well-being after participating in dance-based exercise studies.

Even the passive, motor-driven movement of trauma movement therapy devices can loosen painful tensions, stimulate blood circulation, reduce water retention, and have an overall beneficial effect on rheumatism and arthritis.

How Movement Therapy Helps Stroke Patients

Dance/movement therapy and movement therapy devices can be extremely beneficial to patients who have suffered from strokes or other traumatic brain injuries. Encouraging movement—no matter how small—can help movement therapists to connect with stroke patients and help them navigate their new post-injury body.

If they have extremely limited mobility, just making sincere eye contact and communicating nonverbally through sight and touch can drastically improve a patient’s overall wellness. Use of movement therapy devices can even help patients relearn lost movement patterns.

How Movement Therapy Helps Patients With Parkinson’s Disease

The positive effects that trauma movement therapy, such as dance, has on patients with Parkinson’s disease were acknowledged as early as the 1980s. Today, dance/movement therapy is used to help Parkinson’s patients express themselves, organize movements, and calm dystonia. DMT also helps to improve patients’ gait and balance, decreasing their risk of injuring
themselves during any potential falls in the future.

Finding a Movement Therapist

If you think you or a loved one could benefit from trauma movement therapy, you should look for a certified DMT, occupational therapist, or other specialized physical therapist or facility that uses movement therapy devices in your area. When a patient is dealing with trauma, its effects on the mind can be just as debilitating as its effects on the body. Dance/movement therapy can help you reconnect with your body, mind, and spirit for increased morale and overall better quality of life.

To learn about how various types of movement therapy and the devices used by cutting-edge professionals in the field can help ICU patients (such as by decreasing their hospital stay, for starters), download our free study: “Impact of Movement Therapy on Length of Stay in ICU.”

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