Empowered without ED: Drumming in Eating Disorder Treatment

By: Annie Heiderscheit, Ph.D., MT-BC, FAMI 

The Emily Program 

University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing 

Group drumming and improvisation is a way to actively engage a group in the here and now. Consideration must be given to the group and their process. In eating disorder treatment, the therapist must be mindful of the level of medical stability of each individual in the group. If an individual is severely medically compromised, the level of activity in an improvisation experience may require expending too much energy. Care must be given in determining the physical readiness of a group to engage in drumming. In the residential care setting, typically the client would be medically stable, but can still be low weighted and be medically compromised. 

The case illustration that follows includes a group of women were in a residential eating disorder program that ranged in age from 21 to 35. Of the eight participants only one had previously engaged drumming experience. Many of these young women struggle with issues of perfections and for individuals that struggle with perfectionism, engaging in something new can feel overwhelming and stir up a feeling of fear or failure. 

This session began with the music therapist asking the group to identify what they need to succeed in their recovery. The list included the following: peace, comfort, love, hope, calm, self-acceptance, and patience. The music therapist asked the group how to musically create the needs included on the list. The group then talked about what they needed to hear to create these feelings; this included consistency, harmony rather than dissonance, rhythms that complemented one another and felt cohesive and soft to moderate dynamics. 

Each member of the group was then asked to select an instrument they would like to play. They were invited to begin playing as they felt ready. As the group began to play they listened to each other, at times matching rhythms and other times struggling to play cohesively. The dynamic level remained consistently muted to create the feelings they had listed. As the drumming progressed the group began to listen to each other more intently finding where each fit and what felt comfortable. Each kept playing until the group hit a "groove", or a moment when all the rhythms seemed to come together and ease into one another. At this moment you could see the group collectively relax into the experience. The group maintained this for several minutes, playing and engaging with one another in the moment and in the music, creating what they all needed. 

The music therapist signaled the end of the drumming. When everyone had set down their instrument, she asked the group, "How did that feel?" "Did you create what you needed?" 

The group identified feeling calm and more relaxed then they did at the start of the session. They recognized how in listening to one another they created wonderful rhythms and felt listened to and cared for. They recognized how they worked beyond the fear of failure, took the risk and tried something new. The group was struck by a comment by one of the women. In the process of talking about the improvisational experience, she remarked, "While we were playing together and creating music, my eating disorder was not present. How great it feels to have time away from it". 

The process of actively making music pushed them to take a risk, confront the fear of failure and help them to see within the moment that they could meet their own needs. The ultimate benefit was that by placing their full presence in the here and now, they were able to step away from the eating disorder. They could capture a glimpse of life free of the eating disorder. And for a moment in time, experience empowering themselves to create the very things they need to succeed in recover and experience a glimpse of life without the eating disorder.