May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Traditionally, resources focus on hotlines and 800 numbers that people can call if/when they feel like they have nowhere to turn for support. What about support for people who cannot speak? Do their mental health needs not matter? While not everyone can speak, everyone can move in some way, shape or form.
Whether it is through eye movements, breathing or our heartbeat, the potential for movement as a form of expression is possible for everyone. Dance and movement is a form of communication, and for those whose language skills are compromised, not yet developed or inaccessible, that form of communication can make all the difference between having hope and feeling hopeless.
As a dance therapist, I see this in my practice all too often. Whether it is an individual diagnosed with advancing Alzheimer’s or a young child living with Autism, their ability to express their frustrations, fears and worries is imperative to their emotional and physical health. Consider that a client might have a physical ailment that is not described by a physical injury or issue. In this instance, the body expresses something that the mind is suppressing. One basic example that most of us have experienced is a tension headache. Here is a physical symptom of an emotional trigger. Now, what about an individual who has been sexually abused? Often times, there is an inability to verbally process what has occurred. Either the words are not accessible or the person cannot confront what has happened. The body has so much to say if we only give it the opportunity, but we feel the need to express verbally through formal language, and if that is not present, then we must wait until it is or assume everything is “okay”.
Dance and movement make mental health accessible for everyone. Movement is an extension of the self, and when it changes, so do we. Not only is dance a great outlet that supports positive mental health, but using movement to identify emotions that threaten our emotional health can have a huge impact on our ability to manage daily stress and regulate our emotions. Furthermore, we can learn to use movement to understand others’ perspectives, to walk in others’ shoes, and to empathically connect to our loved ones. Movement can help us be better caregivers, parents, even employees or workers. Dance and movement can help us manage our own expectations and even help us embrace a self-care regimen where we set boundaries based on gut feelings and body intuition.
Remember that your right to positive mental health doesn’t end with your ability to talk but rather begins with your inherent right to move and communicate through your body. When you are feeling down, overwhelmed or out of control, your body is one of the most powerful resources for balance, grounding and health. Talking doesn’t always make it better. Sometimes the best thing we can do is recognize how we feel, where we feel it and move.
By Erica Hornthal, LCPC, BC-DMT of Dance Informa.