March is Brain Injury Awareness month and as a dance/movement therapist I have spent much of my professional career providing dance/movement therapy (DMT) to people surviving brain injuries. While specific interventions change and shift, a core component in the way I practice dance/movement therapy is the intentional creation of an embodied relationship; this empowers and connects myself, family, and peers to those who are often forgotten, isolated, and disconnected from themselves, their families, and their pre-injury communities.
While working in brain injury and neuro-rehabilitation centers, I witnessed people whose brains had been bruised, bumped, banged, deprived of oxygen, and flooded with toxic blood. Even after suffering a hurt, the brain has a beautifully remarkable ability to heal. This healing savvy is called neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s continual ability to change structure and function through the growth and modification of neural synapses and the potential growth of new neurons (Badenoch, 2008; Siegel, 1999, 2007).
Relying upon the principles of neuroplasticity, the practice of dance/movement therapy is one way to help those surviving brain injury re-inhabit their bodies and cope with the emotional, cognitive, and physical impairments that are often results of brain trauma. Each year, millions of people incur some type of brain injury. Causes of injuries include, but are not limited to, strokes, aneurysms, oxygen deprivation, blunt force physical trauma, falls, and violence. The literature on brain injury reveals a tendency for the general public to remain unaware of the magnitude of this epidemic. With symptoms ranging from headaches, memory loss, mood swings, anxiety, and dizziness to paralysis, impaired speech, cognitive deficits, and personality changes, survivors are often left struggling to get their needs met, needs that typically remain throughout their lifetime. While symptoms can be generalized from one brain injury survivor to another, each neurological trauma manifests differently in each individual. The location of the injury, the severity, the inherent nature of each person all play a part in determining the expressed symptoms, coping abilities, levels of recovery, and types of effective treatment (BIAUSA).
I have had the honor of working with those surviving a variety of brain injuries and their family members who are also learning to thrive in the midst of brain injury, in individual and group DMT sessions, and in aquatic DMT groups. With one gentleman recovering from a stroke that left him unable to speak, eat, and initiate most movement, we connect first through eye contact. As he meets my eyes, looks away, and reconnects, I verbally witness all I see in him. Our work together is slow and simple – eye contact, attuned breathing, verbal witnessing, and touch. During a session, he slowly, almost imperceptibly, moves his hand towards me. With muscles bound so tightly and in a body that is remarkably different from the one in his pre-brain injury life, I am humbled and shocked to see this movement. On this day, we connect through touch, holding hands, giving small hard to see fist bumps, and at the end, engaging in a slow but triumphant thumb war. By attuning to the small micro-movements in his face, his breath, his arms and using my nonverbal and verbal communication to meet and witness, we connect on a human level.
With another woman, we use water to find increased mobility. On land, gravity wins, the hemi-paresis and blindness keep her in an anatomical prison. In the water her whole body is lighter, we support her paralyzed side with floats, and she finds freedom and laughter as she swims, walks, jumps, and falls. In the water, the fear of falling is diminished; the bound, careful attention she gives to staying upright on land isn’t needed, and for a few sweet minutes, she can let go. This attention to re-inhabiting the body, in a new environment, often affects both physical function and psychological mood. Sometimes, her mood shifts, the hopelessness of being bound in a body that refuses to do what it used to, is temporarily suspended. This also allows a release of grief, the waves of sadness for what once was, flow freely. All responses seem beneficial – the shift in mood, which typically allows her to find motivation to engage in additional therapeutic activities, or the space to grieve and let go while being supported by myself and the water. She says “I feel like a person again, even for just a minute.” Ultimately, the gift of this work has been in connecting with people whose brains are hard at work trying to heal themselves. As a dance/movement therapist, I find them in their humanness, connect to them nonverbally and verbally, and use this therapeutic approach to help them and their family members feel supported and less alone. In the spirit of connection, I also find the incorporation of dance/movement therapy to be particularly well suited as a conjunctive therapy – as a support to physical, occupational, recreational, and cognitive therapies.
In honor of Brain Injury Awareness Month and all those living with the many facets of brain injury – survivors of brain injury, family members, and/or friends, let us take a deep breath. Connecting through the shared experience of inhaling and exhaling, we are reminded that we are not alone. For more information, education, and resources regarding brain injury awareness, please visit Brain Injury Association of America’s website.
- Badenoch, B. (2008). Being a brain-wise therapist: A practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
- Brain Injury Association of America. Brain Injury Awareness Month.
- Siegel, D. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: The Guilford Press.
- Siegel, D. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.