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Dance Movement Therapy in Addiction Treatment

Clinician Center
10.30.2020

As clinicians, it is our responsibility to accurately understand the treatment options available for our patients and refer as clinically indicated. It’s especially important that we gain a clear understanding of therapies that we may not be familiar with or utilize in our own specialty practice so that our patients can access those forms of care when needed. One of these areas, I believe, is dance movement therapy in addiction treatment.

At the outset dance movement therapy (movement psychotherapy) is frequently misunderstood by some clinicians, perhaps, in part, due to the word dance. Often, when one imagines dance, they think of a choreography – standing in front of a mirror and learning a technique or sequence of dance combinations which lead to the possibility of entertaining or performing for others. While this is true for dance classes, this is not accurate for dance movement therapy.

Dance Movement Therapy in Addiction Treatment

Dance and Movement in Communication

To understand the role that dance movement therapy can play in addiction treatment, one must recognize that dance movement therapy is a form of psychotherapy or “talk therapy.” Like talk therapy, it provides a structured and safe avenue to identify and explore emotions with the support of a trained clinician. Of course, in order to communicate, language is essential. 

While it may not be the first form of language or communication that comes to mind, movement is, in fact, a form of language. As infants, movement serves as the very first language to express needs while parents and caretakers mirror and mold via bodily cues. As adults, the language of movement serves as an intimate form of connection, understanding, and even a way to express conflict.

Many identify dance as an art form. And art is, at its core, a way to communicate ideas, desires and despairs (just to name a few.) Dance movement therapy is the use of dance or movement as the primary language to communicate these emotions – ranging from simple to longstanding and complex needs – during the psychotherapy session in the presence of a trained clinician. By leveraging various approaches like incorporating music, sitting in stillness, exploring mirroring practices or other movement-based exercises, dance movement therapy opens the door to exploring feelings and emotions to gain insight.

Using Dance Movement Therapy in Treatment

A variety of evidence based treatments for substance use disorder (SUD) are shown to benefit patients – cognitive behavioral therapy-based approaches, contingency management, motivational interviewing and mindfulness-based interventions are all well-known and widely applied. Since each individual is unique it’s important that clinicians, or those designing treatment programs, are aware of modalities such as dance movement therapy that complement the above evidence based treatment approaches.

As social beings, we are interested in connecting to others and to ourselves. Yet individuals who struggle with SUD tend to experience a narrowing of healthy relationships – not only with others but within their own self and body. Applications of dance movement therapy intend to address essential dimensions of being a body (not just a mind). These applications enable resilience and establish opportunity for enhanced mindfulness (some may say bodyfulness or heartfulness.) The opportunity to modulate between verbal and non-verbal languages can be tremendously useful in creating access to experiences that may not have had such clarity through words alone.

Other patients who struggle with alexithymia benefit from dance movement therapy by gaining insight into emotion vocabulary, identifying how emotions can be experienced, where they might be experienced in the body and regulating these emotions in an embodied way so that there’s a sense of increased control and agency. Learn more about the role of creative arts therapies in alexithymia.

Dance Movement Therapy at Wellbridge

As a brand new facility, Wellbridge has been in the unique position to build a creative arts therapy center from the ground up – targeting the specific needs of individuals living with SUD. We understand that patients diagnosed with SUD often struggle with the tolerance of emotions – be it the difficulty identifying emotion within themselves, interpreting others’ emotions accurately, expressing emotion sufficiently or managing the complex ebb and flow of each emotional state. Therefore, it is especially important that we aim to incorporate psychotherapies that reduce these hurdles, building capacity for nonjudgement, insight and self-compassion.

Dance movement therapy cultivates that avenue. Within each dance movement therapy session, effective psychosocial treatment for SUD is applied, including motivational interviewing and motivational enhancement approaches. Key perspectives are emphasized and supported:

  1. Social learning – bonds with family, friends and colleagues can influence and motivate individuals to engage or refrain from substance use. The process establishes a sense of cohesion and support in order to facilitate goal direction, first within the session and then bridging outward toward family, friends, school, work etc.
  2. Behavioral economics – identifying alternative choices is key to replacing substance use with protective activities. As a pathway to alternative behavior, DMT facilitates creative engagement, release of endorphins, and expectations of positive/negative consequences leading to healthier lifestyle choices.
  3. Stress and coping – high risk situations and stressors lead to isolation and misuse of substances. DMT establishes a process to safely identify triggers, urges and cravings, as well as creatively manage intrapersonal and interpersonal conflict by fostering bonds, support, structure, and goal direction.

At Wellbridge, we’ve designed a program that recognizes dance movement therapy as an essential treatment modality for SUD. Key theoretical perspectives are emphasized and supported in our program such as social control theory, behavioral economics perspective, alternative rewards and stress and coping theory. Our Movement Psychotherapy for SUD track is designed to complement the Wellbridge CBT programming. This track is intended to promote a kinesthetic knowing and nonverbal approach to managing thoughts about using, coping with cravings and creative problem solving to reduce the risk of relapse.

Learn More About Dance Movement Therapy

As a complex and beneficial psychotherapy, there is so much to know about dance movement therapy (as well as other creative arts therapies). My work at Wellbridge not only aims to integrate these forms of therapies into patient programs but also bring to the awareness of providers the many benefits creative arts therapies and interventions offer.

To learn more about dance movement therapy and find dance movement therapy providers/verify state licensure, please visit the below sites:

American Dance Therapy Association

New York State Dance Therapy Licensure Search

Limited Dance Movement Therapy Permits Search