Always thought that talking therapies involved sitting on a cosy chair in the confines of a therapy room? Think again.

From walk and talk therapy to yoga-infused sessions, there are many ways (and reasons why) movement is muscling its way into the therapy offering. So as part of Mental Health Awareness Week (13-18 May 2024), our members share their thoughts on the power of movement in therapy and why you should try it.

“Movement of any kind has lots of physical and emotional benefits, so it makes sense to bring it into therapy,” explains accredited equine-assisted therapist, Tracie Holroyd, whose horsemanship-based therapy sessions rely heavily on movement to work through client issues.

Accredited therapist Joanne Strong, who integrates yoga and breathwork into her talking therapy sessions, agrees with this and says movement in therapy is so powerful because the mind and body are inextricably linked.

“By involving the body in therapy sessions, it helps us make sense of our feelings,” explains Joanne. “The body holds and remembers things differently to the head, so it’s important that we don't leave the body out when we are working something through. This is why therapists often ask: 'How does this feeling show up in your body'?

“I see talking therapy and movement in therapy as two sides of the same coin. They are both more powerful if they can draw from each other. This is why yoga therapy is emerging, and why psychotherapy is increasingly incorporating embodied techniques.”

And the stats seem to support this, with the our latest public perception survey* revealing that two in five of us (40%) use exercise and sport to help manage our stress levels. 

William Pullen, accredited psychotherapist and founder of Dynamic Running Therapy (DRT) and app, which uses a combination of mindfulness, focused questions, and exercise says that the great thing about using movement in therapy is that “the client can make progress in either, or both, at any time.”

“Movement and therapy are complimentary to each other,” shares William. “It's a form of collected progress the client can invest in more directly than office-based therapy.”

 So what are the main benefits and why should we try it?

  1. Movement helps unlock feelings

Accredited therapist Jen Mak, who offers ‘walk and talk’ therapy sessions around her local parks in Glasgow, says that she has witnessed physical movement help her clients shift feelings of tension and being stuck.

“Even gentle movement in therapy can be valuable in shifting and processing difficult emotions. I’ve seen in my ‘walk and talk’ therapy sessions that it can be particularly helpful for people who hold a lot of anxiety and frustration. I’ve also witnessed how airing difficulties and moving through them physically often unlock a way of moving through them mentally and emotionally too.”

  1. Movement helps to put you at ease

Jen and William agree that for clients who find opening up to a new therapist a little daunting, a movement-based therapy can help to ease the pressure.

“In the example of ‘walk and talk’ therapy, walking side-by-side with your therapist can be less intense for those who find direct eye contact uncomfortable. The client also doesn’t feel like the pressure is solely on them,” says Jen.

“I find some male clients in particular prefer to talk things through side-by-side,” adds William. “I’ve also found that the side-by-side nature of walking or running can also lead to an accelerated therapeutic alliance. In DRT, the power imbalance can feel much less between therapist and client, which leads to a higher feeling of collaboration.”

  1. Movement helps you feel more present and connected with your body

Jen says that when movement is used in therapy, it can encourage us to feel more connected and at ease within our body.

Tracie, who follows the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) training model, explains that in equine-assisted therapy, the movement required to walk and brush the horse helps us focus on our feelings and work through our issues:

“Equine-assisted therapy not only naturally changes our posture, but the movement also creates a connection between our nervous system and the horse - which aids the rhythm of our breathing, impacts our brain and reduces stress, depression and anxiety. This helps us learn how to stay present and not be overwhelmed by our past or worries about the future. Clients are also more aware of their environment and it heightens their awareness in the here and now.” 

Joanne explains that this is because movement can help return the body to a sense of safety and openness. 

  1. Movement helps you regulate your feelings

“Research has shown that yoga, both asana (postures) but particularly pranayama (breathwork) and meditation, activate the ventral vagus nerve to bring the body back to safety and regulation,” says Joanne.  

“In sessions this might mean using certain postures and breathwork to help restore regulation if a memory, feeling or discussion has brought up dysregulating feelings. Or I may use these techniques to help the client build skills to regulate their own feelings and emotions when they become activated outside of our sessions.”

  1. Movement helps you find the words to articulate our feelings

William says that he’s witnessed movement helping clients to access and express emotions they might otherwise struggle to identify and express. Jen adds that engaging our whole body, and both sides of our brain, can help integrate difficult feelings with words; creating a story that although painful, can make sense and be filed away into the past:

“It can also help us articulate our internal world and often brings movement or nature inspired metaphors, e.g. feeling exposed or uprooted.” 

  1. It builds confidence

“I have witnessed young people, with very limited self-confidence, who were not even able to offer eye contact in their first session, flourish into people who hold their heads up and state: “if I can move the biggest horse, then I can do anything,” says Tracie.

“Horses offer unique opportunities for clients to discover inner strength beyond traditional talk therapy. Our sessions do not enforce the sharing of these inner thoughts as we externalise the metaphors and symbols in the session, so issues are projected and the client can tell their story through this way of facilitation - creating the emotionally safe space without the intensity of face-to-face sessions. Clients learn to make decisions that lead to changing behaviours.”

So, is movement in therapy for everyone?

“The decision to choose a traditional therapy setting to something like DRT is particular to each client,” explains William. “But in general, I find it's especially attractive to clients who want to confront ‘head on’ what's happening in their lives. But it’s possibly less attractive for people in crisis who understandably want a safe and contained space in which to share and emote.”

“Walk and talk therapy can feel refreshing and freeing for some people, but for others those same aspects could perhaps be too open and unpredictable,” adds Jen. “Others may want more privacy for difficult feelings to come out as well. But there's also the option to alternate formats depending on what comes up in sessions to give yourself the best environment for what needs expressing.”

For Joanne, who offers yoga and breathwork as part of her regular sessions, she says: “I don't see talking therapy and movement-based therapy as distinct practices. We are a body-mind, not a body and a mind, so the two are naturally integrated.  Usually there will be a discussion from which an embodied need
emerges, and we then use the practices to meet that need.”

When choosing a therapist, you should always check if they are a member of a professional body accredited by the PSA – such as BACP. This means you can be confident that your therapist meets high professional and ethical standards, is fully qualified after extensive training, has supervision, and that there’s a complaints process on the rare occasion there’s a problem with your therapy.

Although there are no set standards covering all animal-assisted therapy, some therapists will belong to organisations that have specific ethical or training requirements. For example, Tracie is advanced certified through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) and abides by their code of ethics and standards. You can ask your therapist what specific animal-assisted therapy qualifications they have and about their previous experience. For more information about equine-assisted therapy please see here.

To find a BACP registered therapist visit here