5 Ways to Use Movement (Not Exercise) to Support Your Mental Health

“Nothing is more revealing than movement.” ~Martha Graham

It seems like only yesterday that I was at home with a newborn, a kindergartener, two dogs, and a husband who, just like me, was working from home, when we were thrown into the unthinkable COVID19 pandemic.

It didn’t take long for the stress and tension to build in my body. The feeling of instability, uncertainty, and fear, not to mention the post-partum anxiety, took its toll on my body as it became more rigid, bound, immobile, and frozen.

All the ways I had relied on movement as exercise were taken away, adapted to in-home and Zoom learning, which unfortunately did not work for my schedule or home life. It was the first time in a long time that I was not able to incorporate dance into my week.

It seemed very hard to expand, stretch, even breathe, and that’s when it hit me. A little voice inside said, “You need to practice what you preach!” I needed to redefine movement and focus it on my mental health; connecting to movement for emotional well-being and not just for physical activity.

When most of us think of movement we think of exercise. While all exercise is movement, not all movement is exercise.

There are so many ways our bodies move, even involuntarily, that contribute to not only how we feel but what we think. Science tells us that molecules of emotion exist throughout the body, so wouldn’t it make sense that in order to manage those emotions, we need to tap into all the ways to move the body that houses them?

First, let’s look at what movement is. Movement is anything that allows the body to change position or relocate. This can be something as grandiose as running a marathon, or a resting heartbeat, blood pumping, even breathing. All of these examples involve parts of the body or the whole body shifting its position.

So, with this in mind, how are you moving right now? Now ask yourself, how is this movement impacting my mood in this moment? Is it supporting a healthy mindset or perpetuating a habit or behavior that contributes to a negative thought pattern?

In my case, as mentioned above, my movement was very limited, confined, and rigid. It was often impeded by another person, my newborn, who through no fault of his own needed me for survival. I neglected my own body’s needs and it took a toll on my mental health.

Changing the way you think or even feel actually comes down to changing how you move. So what can be done? Here are five ways you can use movement to support your mental health.

1. Focus on your movement right now.

When we focus on our movement in the present moment, we minimize the anticipation of what’s to come, which is often tied to fear or anxiety. We also mitigate dwelling on the past, which can harbor feelings of guilt and doubt.

Every movement is an opportunity to be in the moment, because every moment is found in movement.

Bring to mind one part of your body and simply become aware of its shape, how much space it takes up, if it has any rhythm, or even the lack of movement present. Begin to shift this part of the body in small ways and explore how this part moves.

I began to recognize that my body was closed and tight. So I intentionally made an effort to check in with my posture, giving myself an opportunity to stretch and expand in my body to counter the negative effects I was experiencing.

2. Cross the midline of your body.

When we engage in any cross-lateral movement, like walking, marching, or giving ourselves an embrace, we encourage one hemisphere of the brain to talk with the other. This boosts neural activity across the corpus collosum, which increases neuralplasticity, otherwise known as the brain’s ability to change. This allows new pathways to develop which directly corresponds to our emotional resilience, ability to problem solve, and think critically.

Begin by giving yourself a big hug or simply touching opposite hand to opposite knee. You could also try exercises or yoga poses that require you to cross your midline, like side bends, windmills, or bicycling while lying on your back.

3. Move your spine.

When you engage in movement of your spine, you tap into your self-awareness. This vertical plane of the body houses our core; beliefs, identity, moral compass. Bringing attention to the spine and any way it is able to move gives us the opportunity to become more aware of our inner world, how we feel, and what we need.

Keep in mind that you do not have to be flexible, but gently explore all the ways you are able to move your spine, rib cage, and even hips.

I like to start my day from the comfort of my bed, lying on my back, bringing my knees into my chest, and hugging my legs. As I tuck my chin, this allows my spine to curve as I attempt to connect head and tail.

4. Play with timing and space.

We move in familiar ways because we like comfort, even it that comes at a price for our mental health.

Our bodies tend to stick to a certain timing, pace, and even shape as we move through our world. When we change up the timing and shape or the space our bodies take up, we begin to challenge our minds by moving out of our comfort zone. This can be uncomfortable, but done in small bouts and with ease, can increase our window of tolerance or ability to manage stress.

Notice the natural pace of our movement (walk, gesture, etc.) and try speeding it up and/or slowing it down. Same thing with space, can you take up more space? How does that feel?

5. Move more, not better!

Increasing all the movements at our disposal makes us more resilient in our minds. When you only move in so many ways, then you can only think in so many ways.

When we move our bodies more, in new and unfamiliar ways, building a robust movement vocabulary, we increase our ability to transition through life, manage challenges, or at the very least, begin to connect with ourselves in a different way. This can lead toward more self-compassion and empathy.

When I began moving more throughout my daily life, I had more compassion for myself and my children, who were also struggling to make sense of the world, just like me. I could model my own need for regulation and safety in my body, and as a family we were better for it.

Your body, and its movement, is your greatest resource for emotional well-being and mental wellness. It often starts with noticing all the ways your body currently moves and inviting in new ways of moving whenever possible.

There is no wrong way to do this, as it is an individualized practice designed to harness your own mind-body connection. Furthermore, it’s not the movement alone that matters but the execution as well. Being mindful and intentional as you engage in this practice is vital.

Integrating the aforementioned tips into your lifestyle is a guaranteed way to A.C.E. your mental health. By becoming more AWARE of our movement, we can CHALLENGE our current behaviors and EXPAND our minds in order to live more emotionally regulated lives.

About Erica Hornthal

Erica Hornthal, a licensed clinical professional counselor and board-certified dance/movement therapist, is the CEO and founder of Chicago Dance Therapy. Known as the “Therapist Who Moves You,” Erica is changing the way people see movement with regard to mental health.  Erica is the author of the new book, Body Aware: Rediscover Your Mind Body Connection, Stop Feeling Stuck, and Improve Your Mental Health through Simple Movement Practices.

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