Towards Filling the Empty Space

Dance and Drama Therapy for the Treatment of Eating Disorders

Tannis Hugill, RCC, RDT, ADTR

Reprinted from "Eating Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, No. 16, pp. 25-26

Eating disorders — anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating — are affecting ever greater numbers of people in North America and are spreading quickly to other parts of the world. Most sufferers are women, though there is an increasing number of men. Many are teenagers. Some are children as young as seven.

There are many theories about why eating disorders exist and how they should be treated. The causes — complex and different for each individual — are usually a combination of stresses experienced in childhood and our culture’s pressures to be thin. They are also responses to our society’s negative attitudes towards the body.

Individuals who develop eating disorder symptoms, whether the self-starvation of anorexia, the bingeing and purging cycles of bulimia, or the compulsive overeating of binge eating, are trying to cope with unmanageable feelings. We are all brainwashed to believe that if we were beautiful and thin, we would be successful and happy. For someone overwhelmed by their life ’s problems, it is easier to focus on controlling their body.

Because the arena of struggle speaks symptomatically through the body, it is important to address this directly in treatment. Dance and drama therapy are both creative, experiential approaches. They engage what is healthy in us and offer activities that give positive experiences in and through the body.

Negative body image is central to these illnesses. Body image is how we see our bodies in our minds, how we feel inside and talk to ourselves about our bodies. Someone with anorexia will see herself as being very fat, in spite of the fact she is extremely thin. Someone with bulimia or binge eating may see herself more realistically but will hate how she looks.

Eating disorders are a way to communicate feelings such as abandonment, rage, fear , grief, and shame. People with eating disorders often speak of an emptiness or void inside. If anything, they fear they are filled with a monster . The symptoms can be seen as a kind of fortress that protects from feeling. They are coping tools that are very hard to give up. In denial, the individual will often refuse treatment; but, they are very serious illnesses — damaging to the mind, body and spirit. There are many suicides as well as deaths from physical complications.

The specific behaviours are the tip of the iceberg. In treatment, it is crucial to attend to the underlying experience. I have used creative, body-oriented treatment in hospital settings and in private practice. Dance therapy is the intentional use of body awareness and movement to bring growth and healing. It teaches us listen to, and trust, what our bodies tell us about ourselves. Because it is nonverbal, movement therapy bypasses the wall of defenses that talking often reinforces. Drama therapy helps us understand the roles and patterns we use to express feelings, by learning to choose ones that are helpful and transform those that are not. Clients are assisted to remain in the present moment, bringing awareness to their experience, thus gaining knowledge about unconscious feelings and beliefs. Thus, they can make more effective choices and create a bridge to their embodied selves.

I often begin sessions with simple stretches and movement patterns, perhaps combined with drawing or storytelling. This allows safe exploration of the body, relieves tension, and teaches healthy self-nurturing. Negative attitudes are transformed. One woman who had abused herself for years began to describe herself as ‘graceful’ and glided with pleasure across the room.

In role-play, we discover that the illness is both best friend and demon. One client had a breakthrough when she chose her sister for support, instead of the anorexia. In another a girl pushed ‘bulimia’ away with a forceful “NO!”

Dance and drama therapy both practice setting limits with others. Feeling safe in the body helps relationships by increasing connection with others, instead of the eating disorder. ‘Safe-space’ dances can bring tears of relief.

The sources of pain blocked by the self-abuse of eating disorders need to be carefully opened and take a long time to heal. There is no magic cure. Dance and drama therapy can thaw these defenses so individuals can find themselves. By joining with their bodies, they are able to accept all aspects of themselves. Thus they gain deep, vital roots to growth. New experiences of self-care create satisfying, fulfilling lives that no longer have need for an eating disorder; the empty space within flowers into a fully embodied, empowered sense of self.

 
About the author
Originally from Berkeley, California, Tannis is new to Vancouver, where she is now a registered clinical counsellor, as well as a dance and drama therapist in private practice. She provides professional development training and eating disorders prevention workshops. She also teaches workshops in dance therapy, drama therapy and authentic movement
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