Dance Movement Therapy & Eating Disorders

Ladies Dancing in relation to views of the body

The concept that Dance Movement Therapy can be emotionally healing is not revolutionary. What is less commonly understood are the neurological mechanisms and psychological functions behind this.

A recent study delves deep into how the physiological impacts the psychological through movement and dance and what role this plays in eating disorder thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Dance Movement Therapy

The assertion that the brain is in the whole nervous system and, therefore, exists as part of the whole body is fundamental to the creation of Dance Movement Therapy [1]. As mental and medical health professionals found evidence-based proof of the mind-body connection and its impact on treatment, they began looking into movement-based therapies that could be incorporated into psychotherapeutic treatments.

Dance Movement Therapy is one of these movement-based interventions, “which explores and uses movement in a therapeutic way with a focus on self-awareness, in order to promote the psychophysical integration of the individual [1].” There are many ways in which creative means can allow for a deeper understanding of one’s physical and emotional experience, as well as the expression of this.

Using Dance Movement Therapy, “unintentional expression through movement is fostered, which permits the enactment of unconscious ideas and emotions that often cannot be put into words. This not only discharges psychological or corporal tensions but, simultaneously, can help the individual become aware of his/her emotional resources and strengths [1].”

The therapy seeks to combat the mind-body dualism that often exists in mental health struggles, and particularly eating disorders, and, instead, joins the mind and body together as one.

The therapeutic relationship is important and unique in Dance Movement Therapy, as the therapist “uses specific tools of movement analysis in order to observe and interpret the participants’ body language. Building upon these observations, techniques such as attunement and mirroring are applied, which provide a link between attachment and non-verbal behavior [1].”

Essentially, the therapist and client engage in a dance. Instead of a therapist verbally validating a client, they may do so through dance. Instead of a therapist interpreting a client’s thoughts because of the words they are saying, they interpret their movement in order to respond in a therapeutic way.

Does It Work?

Research provides evidence that Dance Movement Therapy does actually help individuals struggling with disorders such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and dementia [1]. Not only that, it has shown to improve body image in individuals with obesity, cancer, and fibromyalgia [1].

Drawing of people in Dance Movement TherapyResearch has not yet shown its effectiveness with eating disorders. However, the study mentioned previously hopes to be on the first. The study particularly looked at how the use of Dance Movement Therapy impacted eating disorder symptoms of alexithymia and body image issues.

Alexithymia literally translates to “no words for emotions” and “is characterized by an externally focused cognitive style and a difficulty in differentiating between feelings and bodily sensations [1].” These individuals struggle to mentalize the emotional states of themselves and others.

Body image issues are also a huge characteristic of disordered individuals, who “tend to focus on shape, weight, and food perhaps as a way of ignoring thoughts and emotions that provoke anxiety. Thus, they consider their bodies with disdain and often fail to recognize their bodily needs [1].”

With the benefits, Dance Movement Therapy has shown and these symptoms in mind, it makes sense that Dance Movement Therapy might be beneficial to those struggling with an eating disorder.

What’s the Verdict?

As far as body image issues, Dance Movement Therapy showed promising results in how it impacted these symptoms. Those participants that underwent Dance Movement Therapy “improved on the Appearance Evaluation and Body Areas Satisfaction scales, meaning that they felt more positively about their bodies after the DMT intervention [1].”

The study also indicated they were less preoccupied with their looks afterward, as they scored lower on the Appearance Orientation scale [1]. Results for treating alexithymia were less statistically significant, which researchers pointed out was unsurprising, as alexithymia “seems to be a trait that is resistant to change” and might, therefore, require more long-term treatment methods.

Despite the challenges participants reported in occasionally experience uncomfortable and overwhelming negative emotions, they predominantly shared that the Dance Movement Therapy helped them to identify their feelings, be more present at the moment, and get to know themselves better [1].

While this is only one study, the results show promise that Dance Movement Therapy might be a wonderful supplement to psychotherapeutic treatment for eating disorders.


Resources:

[1] Savidaki, M. et al. (2020). Re-inhabiting one’s body: a pilot study on the effects of dance movement therapy on body image and alexithymia in eating disorders. Journal of Eating Disorders, 8:22.


About the Author:

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published June 8, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on June 8, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.