This Dance Movement Therapist Helps Cancer Patients Express Themselves Non-Verbally

Here's how Erica Hornthal helps cancer patients use the mind-body connection to nurture and support treatment.

If you've ever found yourself pacing back and forth while feeling anxious or suffering from a stomach ache before a big moment or presentation, you've experienced what's known as the mind-body connection. The way you think and feel impacts not only your mental health but also manifests physically in your body. Despite this, so many mental health therapies focus on treating only the mind without activating or addressing the physical way your thoughts and emotions influence your body. That's where Erica Hornthal comes in.

Known as "the therapist that moves you," Hornthal is a board-certified dance movement therapist and CEO of Chicago Dance Therapy. Dance movement therapy (or DMT) isn't as widely known as other forms of mental health treatment. In fact, Hornthal often gets asked if she's a therapist for dancers. "It's a niche form of psychotherapy that really centers the body, body awareness, nonverbal communication, and bits of mindfulness within the therapeutic relationship," explains Hornthal.

The foundations of dance movement therapy started in the 1940s. During this time, dancers and choreographers began to recognize the ways that dance could be used to communicate and express emotion. Early forms of dance therapy were based on psychodynamic therapy principles, which explore how non-verbal actions and experiences can influence your thoughts and feelings. In 1966, the American Dance Therapy Association created a training and certification program for dance movement therapists. Today, DMT is used to help with anxiety, depression, and interpersonal skills and to improve quality of life.

This Dance Movement Therapist Helps Cancer Patients Express Themselves Non-Verbally
Courtesy of Erica Hornthal.

In her practice, Hornthal offers individual, group, and family treatment to clients in a variety of different formats. For beginners, Hornthal says dance movement therapy can look very much like a typical talk therapy session, with clients and therapists sitting across from each other in comfortable seating. "For somebody that's really wanting to explore that mind/body connection or who already feels a level of not just comfort but expressivity in their body, [the session] could be someone moving around through the space, through the studio," explains Hornthal. "Perhaps we're spending the whole session on the floor, seated, or even lying down."

Helping cancer patients convey their feelings through dance movement therapy has become a recent focus of Hornthal's work. Research shows dance movement therapy has positive outcomes for cancer patients. One study of individuals with breast cancer found that dance movement therapy improved the patients' vigor and quality of life and helped decrease somatization, or the physical manifestation of psychological issues.

Going through or completing cancer treatment is an emotional journey that can be difficult to articulate — which is why dance movement therapy can be particularly beneficial for cancer patients. "There's so much the mind has to process, and a lot of it is incomprehensible," says Hornthal. "If you feel like you have things to say but don't know how to say them verbally, that's when dance movement therapy can be really helpful."

The impact Hornthal has seen in her initial work with cancer patients has been undeniably moving. "What I remember is the energy shifting in the room," she says. "All of a sudden, people that were pretty controlled started smiling. Their faces just dropped and softened."

Hornthal dials in on bringing more comfort to the body during her sessions with cancer patients. "It's so easy for us to focus on the pain, whether it's emotional or physical," she explains. To change this, Hornthal refocuses the attention on moving the body in a way that feels good, adding a warm blanket to the practice and working with parts of the body that aren't experiencing pain or discomfort. "It's liberating to realize, 'not every part of me is in pain,'" says Hornthal.

Building on that perspective, Hornthal has clients focus on a part of the body that feels neutral and encourages movement within that location, which slowly spreads to the movement of other parts of the body. "At some point, the part that actually is in pain may still be experiencing discomfort, but it's mobile," she notes.

Integrating sensory experiences by taking her practice outdoors is another method Hornthal uses to help patients shift focus away from pain to something more positive. Getting outside, walking in nature, breathing in the fresh air, and listening to the lake or running water are all ways to get the body moving.

The beauty of dance movement therapy is that anyone with a body can do it, says Hornthal. She's found it incredibly rewarding to share dance movement therapy and its benefits with others through her work. "When I'm moving, I feel the most myself," shares Hornthal. "And if other people are able to get to that point where they feel most themselves by connecting to or moving their body, then I've done my work."

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