It’s not easy living in a body, being a body—feeling all the demands of the modern world on our physical and emotional beings. The challenges of the modern world, coupled with the ever-changing landscape of the political and social climate, are altogether a recipe for nervous system dysregulation and emotional dis-ease.
The constant need to escape physical discomfort leaves many of us living in an anxious state of mind. The struggle is that there is no escaping this existence, so we numb, distract, and avoid feeling and sensations in our bodies. We learn to override this internal alarm system like ignoring the check engine light on our cars until we break down and have no other options than to damage-control our way back into survival. This is often when people find their way to my practice. Burnt-out, overwhelmed, and surviving day-to-day just to tolerate the autopilot of life. We need to learn to interrupt these patterns of existing by literally changing the way we move in relation to them.
Such was the case with Terry. Terry was a young woman in her mid-forties, divorced, single, and working full-time. Terry reported feeling unmotivated to move, which was getting in the way of her health goal of losing weight. Her reason was physical and emotional. She identified herself as morbidly obese and it was impacting her physical health, relationships, self-esteem, and confidence. She had always loved to dance and exercise and didn’t feel comfortable in a bigger body. She realized that the weight on her body was representative of the emotional baggage she carried since childhood.
Terry was no stranger to psychotherapy. She knew the jargon. What she didn’t know was how to safely feel her feelings and begin accepting her body in order to be the love she so desperately needed to bring to herself.
Terry found my work specifically for the “dance/movement” aspect. It terrified her and excited her at the same time. In our first session, I remember her bubbly outgoing personality coupled with the insecurity of her appearance as she delicately pulled at her shift to cover her body and slightly constricted her upper body to take up less space. Terry had a beautiful spirit, creative energy, and heavy weight upon her shoulders that I could feel present in my own body. Terry was quick to divulge her “black sheep” status in her family. Her father died tragically when she was a tween and her mother shut down in an attempt to survive and care for her children. Terry was the most like her father—a creative expressive man. This challenged her mother who couldn’t handle the constant reminder of her late husband. This caused Terry to shut off her creative part as she moved away from art and into the field of numbers and statistics.
As we began our session, I invited Terry to walk around the room in a way that felt familiar. She began to walk briskly through the space. When I asked why this felt familiar, Terry said the pace and direction were her normal mode of operating. She was an overachieving perfectionist who was self-driven and goal-oriented, but only in her career. This had been expected of her from childhood. Lately she was feeling exhausted by this behavior. She was quick to point out that while it was familiar, it was not what she wanted. She wanted to move away from the expectation of others and begin finding a sense of security in her body free from judgment. It was challenging for Terry to move through life without people-pleasing. She wanted to do things on her own terms.
I invited Terry to move in other directions. To her surprise she began to walk backward and found it oddly satisfying. She paused briefly, looked up, and said, “I feel like I can trust myself,” as she continued to walk slowly glancing over her shoulder to avoid backing into anything. As she moved backward, she mindfully walked through the space with her chin up, eyes open, and chest lifted, quite different from the concave posture she walked into the room with.
Terry began to get winded and walked over to the ballet barre anchored to the mirrored wall of the studio. As she leaned over the barre, resting her forehead on the back of her hands, she began to walk her feet forward and backward into the barre and away from the barre.
I asked her, “Do you see what you are doing with your feet?”
Terry replied with a smirk on her face, “Yes. I am moving forward.”
I asked. “How is it that you can move forward?”
“I can move forward when I have support,” she answered.
The support of her upper body on the barre allowed her lower body to move freely. This guided our conversation as we explored together what support would like look in terms of her mental health and physical wellness goals. She agreed that she needed a team. This could look like a therapist, a coach/trainer, a nutritionist, and friends.
As Terry caught her breath and spirit, she moved away from the barre and attempted to move forward through the studio on her own without the external support of the barre. She found that moving on a diagonal allowed her to move forward. She began rolling her shoulders as she stepped side to side advancing into the space. When asked what made this possible, Terry said, “This feels creative. I can move forward as long as I have my creativity.”
This brought tears to her eyes. The thing that she denied herself all these years to appease her grieving mother—the one thing that kept her connected to her father—was coming into focus. Creativity wasn’t just something she wanted. It was something she couldn’t live without. This became the focus of our work. We embraced the creative spirit and made sure to weave it into every aspect of her healing journey.
This brief case example is just one of how powerful movement can be within the therapeutic relationship. Allowing our bodies to move us when we are unable to process and verbalize what we are sensing can be the one thing that allows us to interrupt these patterns of behavior that keep us on autopilot. Movement is more than exercise. It is our first language, and it is the one thing that can truly move us through the difficulties that we face.
Photo from Anna Shvets/Pexels
Erica Hornthal is a licensed clinical professional counselor, board-certified dance/movement therapist, and the CEO and founder of Chicago Dance Therapy. Since graduating with her MA in Dance/Movement Therapy and Counseling from Columbia College Chicago, Erica has worked with thousands of patients aged 3-107. Known as “The Therapist Who Moves You,” Hornthal is changing the way people see movement with regard to mental health. Contact: ericahornthal.com.