Dance Therapy As Treatment For Eating Disorders

The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) estimates that 10 million men and 20 million women in America will have an eating disorder during their lifetime. 

Eating disorders as a group are very serious and sometimes fatal. They cause adverse psychological, physical, and social consequences for the person suffering. What’s even more frightening is that they cross all lines: gender, age, socioeconomic class, and race. 

And while eating disorders increase your risk of mortality, many people don’t often recognize the signs. That’s why early detection, intervention, and a willingness to talk about it are crucial to recovery.

One powerful intervention that can supplement traditional treatment modalities like in-patient and out-patient treatment, psychotherapy, and medications is dance/movement therapy. 

What Is Dance/Movement Therapy?

According to the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA), dance/movement therapy, or DMT, is the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual.

“DMT is a creative art psychotherapy that utilizes movement and dance to support the physical, intellectual, and emotional health of an individual,” Katie Bohn, LPC, BC-DMT, SEP, RYT, a board-certified dance/movement therapist. 

In a dance therapy session, Bohn says the therapist may help you explore and make meaning on the connection between movement and your emotions, encourage tracking of bodily sensations and breath, as well as self-expressive and improvisational movements. They may also offer specific movement or verbal therapeutic interventions to promote healing and help you process the feelings evoked by the movement.

According to board-certified dance therapist Erica Hornthal, MA, LCPC, BC-DMT, dance therapy uses movement and nonverbal communication, in addition to talk therapy to manage psychological and behavioral concerns that words alone do not address. “It’s about finding the places inside that you might not know or have chosen to deny, and giving a voice to the experiences and emotions,” Hornthal says. 

Dance Therapy and Eating Disorders

DMT looks different with everyone depending on a sense of safety, access to the body, and personal familiarity with an authentic expression of the body, explains Caroline Kinsley, LPC intern, R-DMT, a dance/movement therapist. “The process may range from mostly verbal or speaking to mostly nonverbal or movement,” she says. 

Kinsley says in practice, dance/movement therapists provide the space for individuals to experience an invitation, a sense of choice, validation, and to tolerate internal sensations. They also offer compassionate and supportive ways to feel a sense of control and autonomy within your body. 

“This can be deeply supportive for individuals with eating disorders because we’re able to help you begin to build a relationship with your body through movement solely for the joy and pleasure of movement,” she says. This invites you to move in a way that feels good, without the need to attain fitness goals, to lose weight, or look a certain way.

Kinsley also notes that when working with individuals managing an eating disorder, attention to the body, and use of the body and movement can be a subtle and incremental journey. For example, she says, the breath is invited as a focus of movement in the body, and the dance therapist may offer invitations, ideas, and curiosities as goals but not expectations.

“When working with anyone who has or is experiencing a trauma, permission to take it slowly and establishment of a safe space are essential," Kinsley says.

"An individual may not be able to access body-based experiences due to maintaining a sense of safety,"

Objective factors are at play, too, Kinsley says. “An individual may be fragile and experience low energy levels and medical complications due to malnutrition. Therefore, the presentation or expression of dance or movement will vary, and it is the role of the therapist to meet the client where they are, and respond accordingly,” she says. 

Bohn says individuals who struggle with an eating disorder are often disconnected from or overwhelmed by the lived experience of being in their body. “They may dislike their bodies, blame their bodies, as well as disconnect from painful emotions stored in the body, and DMT provides an opportunity to experience living in their body differently, an opportunity to externalize and express feelings, gain a deeper connection to self, and eventually develop a sense of appreciation on compassion towards one’s self and body,” she says. 

A small 2020 pilot study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders found that DMT can be used as a complementary treatment option for eating disorders. Researchers recruited 14 patients from a private clinic and assigned seven to a random group and the other seven to a DMT group. After 14 weeks of treatment, the DMT group significantly improved in body area satisfaction and appearance evaluation compared to the other group.

Why Dance Movement Therapy Works

According to Kinsley, DMT considers both the mind and body processes throughout the journey. Eating disorders coincide with the mind and the body; therefore it's applicable to include both in treatment. Often, the treatment modalities for eating disorders tend to be cognitive approaches, such as working on thought patterns and narratives.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which emphasizes the important role of thinking in how we feel and what we do, is an effective form of treatment for eating disorders. Treatment includes individual, group, or family psychotherapy. 

But Kinsley says it’s important to remember that when the mind has been undernourished or malnourished, the brain functioning is likely to be affected and may be under-performing.

“Approaching the work from the body allows you the chance to experience and grow while the body is keeping an embodied experience of it all,” she says. 

By using DMT, Kinsley says a therapist can provide body-based strategies to support down-regulating the system, which allows for an increased sense of calm. “Emphasis on the body supports the client in developing the awareness needed to identify physical and emotional sensations of hunger and fullness.

In addition, Kinsley says DMT can serve as a way to build coping skills to use outside of the therapy setting. “With the support of the therapist, you can use movement and understanding of your movement preferences to explore strengths and signals of stress, distress, and triggers,” she says. This can allow you to recognize the change in your body-based experience outside of the therapeutic space and use it as insight if you are tending towards maladaptive beliefs or behaviors.

“DMT is an embodied therapy that explores the lived experience beyond cognition alone,” Bohn says. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, Bohn says being able to reconnect with your body, change the relationship with your body, have access for self-expression, and to experience embodied relationships is significant in sustaining eating disorder recovery,” she says. Dance/movement therapy is a unique modality that supports these goals. 

Resources on Dance Movement Therapy and Eating Disorders

For more information on dance therapy and eating disorders check out the following websites, videos and treatment centers. 

A Word From Verywell

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are serious mental health issues that require professional treatment from a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. In addition to traditional treatment modalities like psychotherapy, experts may recommend DMT as an adjunct or add-on form of therapy when managing eating disorders.

Working with a trained, board-certified dance/movement therapist who specializes in eating disorders can help you focus on both the mind and the body processes as you gain insight and tools for managing daily life.

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