Therapist Notes: movement as a therapy tool

Why and how to use movement in a therapy session

There are jokes about the therapy couch, but people expect to sit and talk during therapy. As I’ve said before, talking as the only healing path is limiting. Somatic therapists have other tools. Movement is an important one.

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Movement facilitates the process of therapy. Muscular and joint activation increase access to memories and feelings through a process we call embodiment. Rather than intellectualizing experiences, we (somatic therapists) seek to embody them. Body psychotherapists use movement intentionally.

We support people to be present in their real life, not just a cognitive stew of memories or future fantasies. Remembering and imagining are important but they can be escapes from real life. Some people are so caught up in memories and what “should” have happened they miss what is happening now. Others are frantically trying to manage and control a future that hasn’t even happened yet, or are daydreaming possibilities that require groundwork in the present. Getting people present is a good start to a therapeutic session. Being present in your body is being embodied.

Embodiment is experiencing your body as it is right now, full of sensations, feelings, thoughts. Embodying your feelings means to feel them (not just think about them). Movement supports the process of embodiment, particularly for people who spend a lot of time in thinking, worrying, imagining or fantasizing.

Movement includes any motility of the body, including the flow of energy. Volitional movements help us in therapy. These include finger clenching, blinking, head shaking, jumping up and down, kicking, and punching a pillow. Different movement serve different functions. Below are some ways that movement helps us land in the here-and-now physical self.

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Five functions that support becoming “embodied.”

Mobilizing or increasing energy in the body. Low-energy clients, whether due to fatigue, depression, or character, benefit from energizing the body. Movement literally requires energy, and it also creates the experience of energy moving through the body.

Increasing body awareness. In bioenergetic therapy, asking people to move spontaneously increases their awareness of the somatic experience. In part, this is because the movement of energy in the body generates sensations.

Reducing chronic muscular tensions and connective tissue contractions. Movement softens tight muscles in the upper back and neck, as well as the rigidly held shoulders. Softening allows energy — and therefore, feeling — to flow through those parts. Bioenergetic therapist and massage therapist Lucy Belter reminds me regularly, “Motion is lotion.” Loosening chronic constriction requires movement. Helping people to move their constricted parts also helps restore sensation and feeling in those areas.

Embodiment of emotional experience. Movement mobilizes energy, which creates sensations. Sensations are the building blocks of feeling. Movement can generate the flow of emotion very quickly. At other times, it can be a gradual building of somatic experience.

Healing and expanding relational capacities. Expressive movement with another person can be reparative. It offers a different way of being with one’s feelings, while relating to another person who is connected and present. We can translate this experience into opportunities for changing

relationships in the larger world. It helps an individual explore and develop new ways of relating to other people.

Movement expands the ability to feel and express feelings. It also provides a route for expression that people might not choose on their own. In therapy, we can invite people to use movement to process and express what they are feeling, and doing so makes it more likely that movement will become part of the person’s home toolkit.

Embodying feelings allows the person to experience and express their emotions to process and integrate them. The goal is for the person to experience their feelings, contain them without constricting or shutting down, express them appropriately, and have access to increased vitality, spontaneity, and clarity.

How do we do movement with clients?

First, we notice the client’s spontaneous movements. We can mirror them, invite the client to pay attention to them, ask them to exaggerate them, and check in on what that is like for the person.

You can ask a person to imagine what it would be like to move in a particular way. “How would it be right now to give that pillow a shake?”

If they find that interesting, invite the action. “Why not give it a try? See how it feels.”

Use your voice, eyes, and words to encourage. “Yeah! Shake that pillow.” Model narrowing your eyes and sticking out your jaw. “Give it to ‘em.”

When the client has moved, take a moment together to breathe and see what they experienced. “What was that like for you?”

Perhaps that will be enough, or maybe the person will do a little more. In any case, try out a little movement, especially if it is expressive movement like shaking a pillow, and then check in. Help the person find their inner safety. Notice breathing, grounding and connection to you. Allow for plenty of time to let feelings emerge and surface. Try not to rush to the next thing.

When we work with movement in session, we integrate it into the rest of the material. Usually, the movement will bring thoughts and feelings to the surface. These can be explored with more movement or with talking. Mostly we’re helping the client to be safe while becoming more aware of her own body experiences, so that she’ll be more free to feel when she’s not in therapy.