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Movement Therapy for Eating Disorders



Dance/Movement Therapy in the Treatment of Eating and Body Image Problems

by Anne L. Wennerstrand, CSW, DTR

Dance/movement therapy or "DMT" is founded on the principle that a vital connection exists between personality and the way in which one moves, and that changes in movement behavior affect the emotional, intellectual, and physical health of the individual. It is practiced by trained dance/movement therapists who have earned a minimum of a master's degree and have met additional requirements established by The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA). The ADTA was founded in 1966 to set professional standards and establish channels of communication among dance therapists throughout the world. Dance/movement therapists work in many different ways, in a variety of treatment settings and with different populations of all ages. DMT can be experienced in a group or individual session or used to enhance a verbally-oriented psychotherapy session. DMT is a body-based therapy grounded in interpersonal, object-relations theory, movement analysis and dance technique. Within a safe, therapeutic relationship DMT helps individuals express through movement and dance that which cannot be put into words.

Dance/movement therapy is effective as a technique to help those with eating and body image problems. One of the most crucial tasks of any therapy is helping an individual put her feelings and experiences into words. When an individual does not allow herself to know or put her feelings into words she must be helped to recognize and name feeling states in order to heal. Research shows that many patients with eating problems struggle with alexithymia, which is defined as difficulty in putting feelings and fantasies into words (Zerbe, 1995). Though eating disorders are incredibly complex, one way to think about the "symptom" of the eating problem is to understand it as an individual's best attempt to cope in some way with internal or external stress. The eating problem represents the individual's difficulty in finding other more gratifying ways to address key needs and issues which may or not be within the individual's awareness. For example, compulsive over-eating may be an individual's attempt to soothe (via the distraction of the food) a painful feeling that she has not yet learned to name or tolerate in any other way. Feeling states manifest in the body and the "site" of the eating disorder is the body itself, making body-based therapies ideal in helping those with eating problems.

For someone with an eating disorder the bodily-felt sense of self is distorted, frozen, traumatized or too filled with shame to be known or seen by another person. One of the ways DMT helps is through the development of mindfulness of bodily sensations leading to more realistic sense of body boundaries. Because this development happens within the safety of the therapeutic relationship, it can be emotionally corrective. The dance/movement therapist helps the client to pay attention to bodily-felt experience which have emotional significance leading her to experience, trust and know herself in a safe un-traumatizing relationship with the therapist. This can lead to greater ability to know herself and recognize physical cues such as hunger and satiation. Dance/movement therapists help clients to name and modulate strong emotions. That is, by attending to a bodily felt sensation, the individual can start to notice different intensities of the sensation and through attention to breath and movement, notice what changes occur. Many patients are than better able to self-soothe anxiety and other feeling states on their own outside of the therapy session.

Dance has existed in every human culture and is used in ritual, rites of passage and as a cathartic healing tool. In early civilizations dancing, religion, music and medicine were linked. Modern dance/movement therapists use the power of dance and movement to help individuals access their own natural ability to heal and grow.

For more information about dance/movement therapy, or to find a dance/movement therapist in your area, contact the American Dance Therapy Association at www.adta.org or call 410-997-4040.

Zerbe, K.The Body Betrayed: A Deeper Understanding of Women, Eating Disorders and Treatment. Gurze: Carlsbad,CA. 1995. 

In Partnership with the American Eating Disorder Association- -SINCE 1999