Movement for Mental Health
Updated: Feb 11, 2021
The body holds all kinds of secrets. Emotions coil in our stomachs, anxiety twists in our shoulders and neck, and trauma burrows into our joints and muscles. Our experiences are imprinted physically on each of us. Kristen Tippett interviewed psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, in her podcast, On Being, about how the typical mode of therapy, mainly talk therapy, isn’t effective for treating the effects of trauma. Instead, Van der Kolk recommends methods that help re-establish the connection between our bodies and our minds.
Lessons from History
The idea of movement and exertion as mental therapy is not new. Many mental health asylums were built in country settings where patients worked in gardens as a restorative activity. Today, recreational therapies including hiking and other outdoor adventures are used to help those with addiction to bridge the gap between talk therapy and everyday life.
“…When people really become very upset, that whole capacity to put things into words in an articulate way disappears. And for me, that is a very important finding because it helped me to realize that if people need to overcome the trauma, we need to also find methods to bypass what they call the tyranny of language.” Dr. Van de Kolk
According to Helpguide.org, trauma can be caused by:
One-time events, such as an accident, injury, or a violent attack, especially if it was unexpected or happened in childhood.
Ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, battling a life-threatening illness, or experiencing traumatic events that occur repeatedly, such as bullying, domestic violence, or childhood neglect.
Commonly overlooked causes, such as surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life), the sudden death of someone close, the breakup of a significant relationship, or a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, especially if someone was deliberately cruel.
Everyone experiences some form of trauma. And now, with the pandemic of Covid-19, we are all struggling with anxiety, and what will ultimately be a traumatic time in our history.
The number one recommended way to heal from trauma on Helpguide.org is to “Get moving.” Instead of sitting on a couch and trying to talk out your feelings, trauma recovery specialist like Dr. Van der Kolk, specifically recommends focusing on the body or “body awareness”. Particularly, activities that focus on the breath, such as yoga, tai chi, and martial arts which have proven more effective than other forms of exercise.
My Personal Experience: Yoga and Kickboxing
I’ve been practicing yoga for 16 years, and am a certified yoga instructor. Although I don’t currently teach, I do continue to practice and one of the reasons is the strong link between breath and movement. Yoga can be a powerful tool for self-awareness. Many times I found myself in tears as I lay in the final resting pose of shavasana.
However, from my own experience, I think you have to be prepared to interface with your own emotions. Immediately after Jordan’s death, there is no way I could have practiced yoga. I would have been a wreck on the mat. For my grief, I needed a way to vent the disappointment and bitterness, and the physical oppression of loss. So…I joined a MMA gym. I started my healing process by drop-kicking a padded opponent, learning how to use my weight to jab and cross, or sprinting in the parking lot behind the gym.
There were times I cried as I pounded out a sequence of punches and kicks on the heavy bags. But it helped. Even five years later, some days I still feel the urgency to wrap my wrists and move through a punch sequence.
Movement Therapy During a Pandemic
Now, this all becomes a little tricky when the gyms, yoga studios, and other indoor pursuits are either shut-down, limited in capacity, or you're just trying to avoid risky encounters. How can we find our mind/body connection and release the angst of worry or frustrations?
1) Youtube. There is no shortage of workout videos on youtube. Yoga, Barre, HITT, interval, sculpting, on and on and on are available.
3) Check local studios and businesses as some are offering virtual classes. In St. Louis, if you are on the email list for Prana studio, they are doing a few classes a week online.
3) Get outside and back to basics. This New York Times article breaks down why running is experiencing a mini-boom. Don’t want to run? There’s always walking or hiking. The weather is a little temperamental right now but if you can layer and strap on some shoes, you can get your exercise on.
Whether you are dealing with past trauma or with the daily stress of life in a pandemic, it doesn’t matter what you choose to do, as long as you do something. Through movement, you can reestablish a connection between your mind and body bringing your focus to the here and now. The best place, mentally, to be.