“I am tired of it, tired of my body. Tired of my soul. I can only see that it’s getting more and more sick as time goes by.”
Much research has been done on the link between physical exercise and mental health. So far, focus has largely been on how an active lifestyle may help alleviate symptoms such as depression and chronic pain, but a group of Danish researchers have gone in a different direction, introducing traumatised refugees to the relatively unknown Basic Body Awareness Therapy.
Basic Body Awareness Therapy (BBAT) is a form of physiotherapy that is often used for psychiatric patients in Scandinavian countries. Stemming from different movement systems of Western and Eastern traditions, it focuses on movements related to posture, coordination, free breathing and awareness.
Over a period of 14 weeks, four physiotherapists at the Competence Centre for Transcultural Psychiatry in Copenhagen took a group of traumatised refugees from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon through weekly 90-minute BBAT group sessions.
A mainly nonverbal therapeutic process supported by short talks, BBAT is believed to strengthen the patients’ confidence in their own resources. Echoing this, the Danish sessions led to a growing self-confidence among the participants, with some even beginning to feel a sense of control over their own bodies.
“I have learnt how to concentrate myself away from pain. It starts by lying and thinking about
the skin and about something nice. Then everything goes away,” explained one of the participants.
“After all the traumas my body has been through, I feel good that it is still working,” said another.
Traumatised refugees are likely to suffer from (symptoms related to) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a consequence, their interest in participating in activities they once enjoyed has diminished.
For some participants, being part of a group not only motivated them to go to the sessions, but also helped them through the exercises.
“In my case, it’s better to be in a group. When we start doing the exercises, I am focusing on how the others are doing them and my attention is there. I don’t think about my pain during that moment. The thought of pain is distracted by their presence, because they are there.”
Others, who were initially cautious of group sessions, were positively surprised by the unity and solidarity that came from being part of a group.
“In the beginning we were wary of each other, because we didn’t know each other.
Afterwards, when we got to know each other, it got better. I was scared of receiving therapy in
a group, but I think it was a good experience.”
So what can we take away from the Danish study?
After the 14 weeks, the majority of participants expressed satisfaction with BBAT. Some felt happier while others had experienced increased body awareness helping them to reduce or cope with the pain.
“The physiotherapy that we are used to normally involves you going to a physiotherapist to get a massage. And this is something totally different, that you should learn to know your body and react according to the problems you have.”
In terms of participants, the study was small, but what it lacked in numbers it made up for in depth, enabling participants to express any progress or regress they experienced during the BBAT sessions. The encouraging results of the qualitative study suggest the need for further research on BBAT and traumatised refugees.
A bigger study could give us the certainty. But for now, it seems that BBAT could be a key component in the treatment of traumatised refugees.
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