Trauma. It’s big and it’s out there in the media in a way it hasn’t been before. Every day there are more disclosures, and the list of people identifying with movements like #metoo grow right along with the momentum of the movement itself. That’s a lot of traumatized people out there!
I know a lot of you reading this blog have probably experienced trauma in some way. Some of you may have taken that experience and tried to make something out of it. Maybe you became a therapist to try to help others through their own trauma. Maybe you became an activist to try to prevent others from being traumatized. Or maybe you feel totally lost and confused and have no idea what you’re doing. However you’re coping, WELL DONE! Nothing about trauma is easy and I admire you for carrying on each day.
Dealing with the after effects of trauma is terrifying, because trauma by its very nature is something “intense enough and threatening enough that it overwhelms our coping resources” (1). So pretty much what that means this big monster comes along and tramples all over our life, scaring the crap out of us and changing how we see the world and the people in it, and then we’re supposed to figure out how to keep on living. Great. HOW?!?!
I count myself extremely lucky, because when trauma came knocking on my door I had a way to work with my experiences already built into my life – dance. It was my go to response when the monster came calling, and it’s shaped how I decided to live my life since (i.e. become a Dance Movement Therapist and write a dissertation on sexual trauma and DMT).
For me, turning to dance meant choreographing and performing a piece with a close friend. The creative process helped me do a few things that really made a difference – it offered me a way to share my story with someone who spoke my language (dance) and feel her embodied support, it allowed me to connect with my body’s experiences of trauma and move through some of the overwhelming sensations that were held there, and it gave me the opportunity to shift my role in the experience, moving from the position of helpless victim to survivor and agent in my own life.
Now, I’m not suggesting that all traumatized people choreograph and perform dances about it, or at least not without the support of a trained therapist. It was my starting point, but it was only one part of my healing process, which has also included individual and group psychotherapy, as well as educating myself on how trauma impacts us, why, and how we can heal after the fact. What I’m here to suggest is that dance, and Dance Movement Therapy, are an effective way of recovering from trauma.
My first instinct in writing this blog was to try to summarize all of my research to date, but I can’t even begin to start that process because in summarizing I’ll probably end up writing a 7000 page book, and that would take WAY too long. So what I’ll do instead is offer a few takeaways, some suggestions for further reading and a reference list if you’re interested in learning more.
Here’s what I believe: DMT is a creative and embodied approach which offers an integrative way of working through trauma on physical, emotional, neurological, and psychological levels.
Our bodies hold onto trauma in a very real way, so much so that our nervous system literally changes after traumatic experiences. The parts of the brain responsible for sensing danger can become stuck in the “on” position, and sensory experiences that are normally interpreted as safe may trigger flashbacks. MRI scans show that people with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) often have decreased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for introspection, or self-awareness, causing the person to react automatically, in sometimes extreme ways, as though the trauma were still happening. Additionally, Broca’s area, an area of the brain associated with language, goes offline when experiencing flashbacks, limiting the person’s ability to engage in verbal communication! (2) (If you want to read all about this stuff, check out Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score.)
Simply put, our nervous system and brains are not the same after we experience trauma! And talking about it isn’t always possible. This is why a body-based approach, like DMT, that incorporates body awareness into its way of working, can help people recover from trauma more effectively than simply talking about what happened.
Now you may be thinking, “If body awareness is what matters, why don’t I just do some body scans?” And I’d say, “Yeah! Do that! But also see a DMT.” Jeanette Macdonald (a Dance Movement Therapist) explains part of the reason why:
“Whilst physical relaxation exercises are helpful and play a part in body awareness, the body is designed to move and it is through movement that real integration takes place. Movement with dance at its heart, the art form that encompasses all the senses, creates meaning and the possibility for renewal and transformation.” (3)
Thanks Jeanette! I couldn’t agree more. (P.s. You should probably read her full chapter about DMP and trauma because it’s great. Reference is at the bottom.)
Here’s another part of the puzzle:
Peter Levine (psychologist and awesome author of Waking the Tiger and In an Unspoken Voice) suggests that survivors of trauma can use awareness techniques and micro-movements, a technique he calls Somatic Experiencing, to re-enact and complete the body’s unfinished defensive actions, thereby discharging the stored energy in the nervous system that was activated for survival purposes. By allowing the client to follow through with the actions that the body had prepared to do to escape or defend itself, the energy stored in the nervous system can be effectively discharged (4). Van der Kolk also talks about this, stressing the importance of clients having an experience of taking effective action to escape or prevent the trauma, which helps restore a sense of agency and a feeling of being able to protect themselves. (3)
I believe that DMT can offer this type of experience as well, through offering an expressive outlet to explore the body’s responses to the trauma and find a way to allow to complete that response through creative movement, with the support of a therapist, of course. This is something that I’m just beginning to do in my own healing process, finding ways to embody the “no” that was denied to me in my own traumatic experiences.
To wrap up, I want to talk about the act of making art, and how it plays a part in recovering from trauma through coming to terms with the fragmentation that can take place afterwards. Stephen Levine (author/expressive arts therapist) talks about this, explaining that:
“The body speaks, dances, sings and enacts scenes not in order to deny its fragmentation, but to reveal it. Such revelation is also a transformation, a gathering up of the disjointed parts into a unity of signification… a fragmented totality.” (5)
This was part of why dancing and choreographing had such a big role in my healing process. In my first piece on this topic, two dancers represented two parts of myself: pre-traumatic me and post-traumatic me, and moved through the struggle of coming to terms with one another. Another piece I choreographed showed five dancers representing different aspects of the self, finding a way to work towards wholeness. Allowing this fragmentation to exist in a real way, out in the space and on the stage rather than just inside of me, helped me find a way to accept that fragmentation and move forward as a “fragmented totality”.
Right. So I think that’s all I’ll say for now. There’s so much more I want to share, but as always, the best way to find out more is to try it out for yourself! If you’re interested in this work and want to see what it might be like, come to my upcoming workshop Body Politics: embodying consent through creative movement, which will offer a trauma-informed way of working with consent and boundaries. Otherwise you can get in touch to book a free trial session for individual or group Dance Movement Therapy.
Hope to hear from you soon!
-Jessica Houghton, Dance Movement Therapist
- Koch, S.C., Caldwell, C. & Fuchs, T. (2013) On body memory and embodied therapy. Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy: An International Journal for Theory, Research and Practice. 8(2) pp.82-94.
- Van der Kolk, B. (2014) The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
- Macdonald, J. (2006) Dancing with demons: Dance movement therapy and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. In: Payne, H. (ed.) Dance Movement Therapy: Theory, Research and Practice. (2nd) East Sussex: Routledge. pp.49-70.
- Levine, P. (2010) In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
- Levine, S.K. (2009) Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: The Arts and Human Suffering. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.