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Get Up Off the Chair! Repairing the Relationship to the Body

June 17, 2013


“She danced to free her spirit and to free other spirits too…she danced for the living and for the dead in birth and in mourning for peace, beauty and creative expression.”  –Shiloh Sophia

Trauma and the Body
What happens to a child or adolescent’s relationship to their body when they have experienced trauma? When trauma happens there is significant impact on our physiological, emotional and psychological states. The ability to delight in and feel safe within our body becomes impaired. In essence trauma has the potential to create a disconnection to the body. Children learn and begin to believe things like, “My body is not safe,” “My body cannot be trusted” and “I feel chaotic and out of control.”

Body-Focused Interventions
In therapy we want to activate the necessary function of the left hemisphere, which is shut down during trauma experience. The body is a key entryway to help with this activation. Stein & Kendall (2004) state that the neurological basis for providing body-focused interventions such as expressive arts is:

“…because traumatic memories are often firmly lodged in the right hemisphere, children tend to be controlled by negative emotions and self-defeating behaviors. Thus an important goal of treatment is to help children process experience through as many modalities as possible (i.e. images, thoughts, emotions, sensations, and movement), and to design experiences that can activate both hemispheres, especially the left (i.e. experiences that stimulate positive emotions and encourage initiative and action.” (p.137).

van der Kolk (2005) emphasizes the need for interventions that involve movement and pleasure. He states:

“Complexly traumatized children need to be helped to engage their attention in pursuits that do not remind them of trauma-related triggers and that give them a sense of pleasure and mastery. Safety, predictability and “fun” are essential for the establishment of the capacity to observe what is going on, put it into a larger context, and initiate physiological and motoric self-regulation. Only after children develop the capacity to focus on pleasurable activities without becoming disorganized do they have a chance to develop the capacity to play with other children, engage in simple group activities, and deal with more complex issues.” (p. 407).

As trauma-informed practitioners, it is useful to understand how we can bring awareness to the impact of trauma on the body and how to support the reconnection to the sensory experiences of feeling free and safe within the body.

The Body’s Natural Language is Movement
Mindful movement brings one back into the body. We can help children and youth re-establish healthy connections to their bodies and help repair any disruptions of their own attachment to their bodies by designing safe ways to connect to the body through awareness and movement. If we offer a safe, creative play space for our clients, the repair through mindful movements can assist with:

  • increasing trust in the body’s integrity
  • reestablishing a sense of pleasure and ability to delight in positive sensations
  • creating opportunities for self-soothing experiences
  • experiencing power within their own body through self-regulating experiences (i.e. move from sadness to playfulness)

As therapists we help children notice the sensations associated to their inner world, we invite experiences and experiments to expand the sensations and then teach how to savor these positive sensations/feelings. These experiences help children begin to experience in a bodily way, the innate ability of their body to experience play, pleasure and calm.

We do not have to be trained dance/movement therapists to integrate play, gesture, movement into our practice with young people. Movement is a natural part of our life, however, we may have been conditioned to primarily use talk therapy and to stay still and stay put in our respective client-therapist chairs. We are conditioned as human beings to live mostly in our heads, moving in the world as though we don’t have bodies. If we check within ourselves as therapists, we will likely encounter our own notions/ideas about moving in therapy – perhaps our own discomfort in our bodies. It is important that we feel comfortable moving in our own bodies if we are to invite our clients to engage in mindful movements.

Ideas for Practice
The following are some simple ways to bring movement into the creative therapeutic space in our work with children/teens. It is not only the activity itself that can be healing, it is the mindful awareness we bring to the movement, that is noticing the sensations that are aroused, to be curious about them and to invite experimentation through movement (i.e. “What movement expands that openness in your chest – when we stretch way up high or when you put your hand on your chest?”).

1. Beginning of Sessions (fun openings that increase sense of pleasure and playfulness)

  • toss a ball
  • play with sticks (I have 3’ long doweling sticks that I painted a variety of colors) -use these sticks to balance between two people or on your own
  • various games with tossing balloons
  • blowing bubbles

2. Middle of Sessions (used within a structured and evidence-based approach to treating trauma such as Structured Sensory Interventions – TLC)

  • show me the hurt – gestures, dance
  • use the drum to tell the story of the hurt
  • body scan – tuning into the inner world of feelings and sensations and mapping them out on a life-size body outline, find movements/gestures that correspond with those sensations and feelings
  • use stories and rhymes to act out the various rhythms of fight, flight, freeze

3. Ending Sessions (returns the body to a sense of calm, playfulness, self-presence and we are grounded in the here and now)

  • Movement Thumb Ball (I love this ball – if you are coming to the Summer Assembly, pick one up at the Self-Esteem Shop!)
  • play songs our clients like and dance with scarves
  • Yoga Deck – client chooses a card and we make the pose
  • mirroring movement with or without music (one person moves and the other follows, switch roles)

Just a reminder: These are not just therapeutic activities to be used randomly. They are important interventions that are part of a well-thought-out practice framework that guides the treatment of trauma in children and teens.

“She danced to free her spirit and to free other spirits too…
She danced for the living and for the dead
in birth and in mourning
for peace, beauty and creative expression.”
Shiloh Sophia


Stien, P. & Kendall, J. (2004). Psychological trauma and the developing brain: Neurologically based interventions for troubled children. New York: Haworth Press.

van der Kolk, B. (2005). Developmental trauma disorder: Towards a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. Psychiatric Annals. 35(5), 401-408.

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