As Health & Living Editor of Refinery29, I get a lot of emails about weird and wonderful things claiming to “cure” mental health problems. From specific diets to supplements, apps to homeopathic treatments, the list is never-ending.
As someone who struggles with mental health issues (who doesn't these days), I know it’s not possible to “cure” anything. What you can do, is learn how to manage it and, hopefully, learn more about yourself along the way. Sadly, there’s no magic app that’s going to teach me how to do that, no matter how many emails I receive about it.
So it’s safe to say I’m a little sceptical when it comes to kooky-sounding treatments. But one thing I got totally wrong? Dance movement psychotherapy.
For starters, dance movement therapy is legit. It’s available on the NHS and has been proven to be an effective tool for helping to treat everything from dementia to depression, schizophrenia to anxiety. It’s helped children who’ve been abused and people suffering from psychosis and addiction. The studies on it are numerous and varied. It's recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.
From reading about it, dance movement therapy sounded pretty cool. So I decided to go and check it out for myself.
I meet Kimberley Pena, a Dance Movement Psychotherapist who works both for the NHS and privately. She's just about the smiliest person I’ve ever met which, considering how awkward I’m feeling (my last attempt at public dancing was probably in 2008), is a huge relief.
"People always think you come to a therapist for guidance,” says Kim. “But ultimately the client is the expert in their life. I’m just providing the vessel for that exploration to unfold.” That exploration, she explains, uses movement to help with a number of things – it might be difficulties in expressing oneself verbally, it might bring unconscious issues to the surface. Some clients, she says, might not even understand the cause of their anxiety until they bring their body into the dialogue.
As a nation of awkward stiff-upper-lippers, Kim understands why there is stigma surrounding dance as therapy. “We are rigid in terms of free expression,” especially compared to some Eastern or African cultures where dance is a part of life. “In our day-to-day existence, everything around us is shutting our bodies down," she says. “We sit at computers predominantly, the way we generally move is in cars or trains, we are held and bound. We move more through tech, where everything is accessible without having to introduce our bodies. We’re shutting off from the neck down, everything is in our heads.”
It’s something that rings true to me and probably to you, too. We control our bodies tightly – even those of us who exercise do so in a controlled manner; lifting weights is most effective when you have impeccable form, yogis strive to shape their bodies into the perfect uttanasana. Free, unconditional movement of our bodies is rare for most of us. Allowing our bodies to act out our brain's desires is rarer still.
“We think about our brains being complex like a computer and when we start noticing a computer slow down, we need to turn it off and turn it on again," says Kim. "We’re at the place in society now where we need to do that – to reset by reintroducing our relationship with our bodies.”
Dance movement psychotherapy (DMP) isn’t new. It’s been around in some form since the first half of the last century. In the 1970s and '80s, people began to experiment with it in a scientific manner and eventually, DMP was categorised as a form of psychotherapy.
So what happens in a session? For starters, no dance experience is necessary. In fact, Kim says it’s sometimes harder to engage people with a dance background because again, they’re so used to using their body within the confines of their discipline. Comfortable clothes are encouraged. To give me a taste, Kim decides to do two experiences with me. The first, she informs me, is a mirroring experience. She will do movement, I will copy, then we will switch.
If you’ve ever been to dance class and found yourself looking longingly at the elegant movements of the instructors and realising that you probably look like an uncoordinated sloth next to them, be assured this isn’t the case in dance therapy. The type of movements Kim does aren’t pirouettes and pas de bourrée (thank goodness), they’re stomps, hand waving and jumping up and down. She goes and I copy. I look pretty silly but actually, I don’t care, because Kim does too.
Afterwards she explains to me that this mirroring experience is very useful for children with traumatic upbringings. For a child who was neglected, having their therapist mirror their movements is often one of the first forms of validation they get – visual proof that they exist, that they matter.
Next up, Kim sits in the corner and invites me to sit or lie down with my eyes closed. She puts on music and asks me to move whatever part of my body I feel an impulse to move. She is non-judgemental and super friendly but, all of a sudden, I feel myself cringe; I feel heavy under her watchful eyes. I sink lower and lower into the floor, desperate not to be seen, desperate to take her attention off my awkward body.
Afterwards she gives me crayons and a pad of paper. I draw and write while she notes down what she sees. I draw a tightly wound ball of dark colours, I write “sorry”. I feel like a prize fool. I feel exposed. I feel naked.
When it’s all over, she comes to talk to me about the experience. To my surprise, I find myself crying and mumbling about how I don’t think I deserve the attention that she gave me. She tells me she saw my body as a mountain that turned into an iceberg which began to melt all over the floor. That, I tell her, is exactly how I felt.
I am mortified but Kim thanks me for sharing and says it’s good that I’m able to keep my emotions close enough to the surface to experience them like this. By the end of our chat, which I won’t delve too much into, I’m feeling much better. It’s like I’ve just had a big cry to exactly the right kind of nurturing friend and been able to voice exactly what I was feeling with eloquence, even though I’ve done nothing of the sort. It’s cathartic. I can’t even imagine how valuable a properly administered course of therapy like this would be to someone in the midst of a seriously dark struggle. At least the dark struggles I've been through.
So how do you know if DMP is the way to go? “It’s about figuring out what feels right for you,” Kim says. “A lot of low states are triggered by having to figure out what other people want you to feel – we really struggle with just being.”
“CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) for instance, is very structured," she continues. "It can work for some people but sometimes it’s masking underlying difficulties and the triggers that cause that mental health decline.”
For me, using my body without judgement was hugely liberating once I got through the strains of doing so, although I’ve had CBT in the past and also found that helpful. There are plenty of other options too and, as Kim says, only you will know which path is right for you.