Maike* is a young professional woman. She is seeking professional psychological help to change some self-destructive thinking and emotional patterns. She often wakes up in the morning with her hands clenched and frequently feels tension in her shoulders, head and pelvic area.
In young adulthood Maike experienced traumatising situations when she felt herself to be a victim and helpless. She feels anger and rage related to the incidents; these emotions are directed to other persons involved and sometimes at herself in the sense that she blames and berates herself for “allowing” the situations to happen. She feels a strong need to express the rage and anger. Her idea is that if she could “let the emotions out” she would feel better. Maike reports that she has at times vented the anger e.g. by screaming or throwing objects. This brought momentary relief but the strong emotions soon returned. As she tells me this there is a smile on her face. I ask if it is in order to give her feedback and when she agrees, tell her how her facial expression does not match her emotions. She is aware that this discrepancy happens regularly.
I suggest that she could give expression to her emotions and that she could do so by means of drawing and/or through movement. What gives me confidence to make this suggestion is the trusting and safe professional relationship I have with her. This can serve to help contain and work through emotions. Furthermore, I know that she has many resources, including a well-developed ability to observe and to reflect on her own behaviour and the capacity to regulate her emotions. When she shows interest to take up the suggestion I recommend guidelines for emotional expression e.g. that nothing and nobody, including her, may be damaged or hurt. I ask her to delineate a physical space within which she can give expression through movement. She decides to use the rug covering part of the consultation room’s floor as the space for expressing her emotions.
Then she mentions how scared she feels at that moment and I ask her to locate where she feels the “scaredness” in her body. She indicates her chest and describes the sensations she experiences there. Encouraged to check what is happening in other parts of her body she notices that her arms feel heavy. With her palms facing upwards she describes that it is as though she has a heavy stone in each hand and that she would have the impulse to throw the stones. As she talks I notice how she moves the forearms up and down and encourage her to consciously repeat this movement. As she does so, she begins to feel relieved. “I can move!” she exclaims and the tension in her face gives way to a smile. Her sense of being able to move is significant because Maike had reacted with freezing to traumatising situations mentioned above and this pattern of freezing had subsequently manifested itself in different, debilitating forms.
As Maike experiences being able to move, the stones in her hands get smaller until they are pebbles. Again I ask that she check the rest of her body. She experiences burning sensations in her stomach and in her oesophagus. Her hands and arms indicate an upward movement. I suggest that she consciously repeat the spontaneously executed movements. As she does so the movements expand, her hands reaching up to her face and extending above her head. Focusing on these movements she experiences an increasing sense of relief and calm.
We end the session at this point.
Since completing a 4-year training in dance and expressive therapy in Germany some five years ago I have at times incorporated elements of that approach in my work as a clinical psychologist. The above description of significant moments during a session conducted in my Helsinki practice hopefully illustrate aspects of the approach. The session took place in the context of a trusting professional relationship and after a thorough psychological assessment had been conducted.
* Maike is not the client’s real name. This piece is published with the client’s consent and after she had the opportunity to read it and comment.