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The emotional benefits of movement

27 Sep 2019 by Krystal Barter
The emotional benefits of movement

Most of us intuitively know the mind and body are intimately connected. When we move our body, it works like an antidepressant on the mind, shifting us into a different emotional state. Here we describe what actually happens in the body when we move – and how that helps us feel better.

The body mind connection

I am a Somatic Psychotherapist, and in my work I place great importance on using the body as a tool to come in contact with our emotions. I also emphasize the benefit of movement. This is because movement helps us regulate our emotions – and helps us feel in control when we face difficult situations.

A word about emotion

Although we name and describe emotions using our minds, they are an experience of the body. Emotions are a result of what we feel within our bodies and how our brain interprets those sensations or feelings. When our emotional and rational brains are in balance, we feel good. When emotions take us over, they start to negatively impact on our ability to be with ourselves and the world. By moving our bodies, we support ourselves to feel less reactive and more in control as we face the world.

Physical health and emotional health coexist

Within us we have something called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). When this system works well, it helps guide us through our everyday experiences. When we feel stressed or overwhelmed by something, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, where we get ready to “fight” or “flight”. When we move, we support our bodies to be able to stay in the more relaxed part of the ANS. From this place, we have more resources available to constructively handle the difficulties we face.

“Becoming aware of our bodily based emotions, is more important than becoming aware of our thoughts” Allan Schore

When we can be in a relaxed way within our bodies, we not only give peace to our minds. We also allow our bodies to be in the best way. Instead of being hijacked by anxiety or fear, we can learn to be with the feelings in our bodies. Movement supports us to process emotions – and prevents us from locking them away in the body.

How to manage overwhelm

When we are faced with overwhelm, one common thing we do is to disconnect or shut down from connection with those around us. To better be able to manage emotions in difficult situations we have two options. We can learn to better be with our emotions “top-down” or “bottom-up”. Common top-down approaches are mindfulness, meditation and yoga exercises. Bottom-up approaches involve breath, movement or touch. When we move, we engage our body to support us in our interactions with the outside world.

Which type of movement should I choose?

I always prescribe movement that you like. Moving should make you feel good, and this can be very individual. Increased duration or intensity of movement help reduce stress, anxiety and depression. In contrast to increased movement, muscle relaxation also helps reduce stress and regulate emotion.

So, the most important thing is to do what you enjoy. If you enjoy walking or running, great. If you prefer dancing or cleaning the house, then do that.

If you want to power boost your movement, consider moving with someone. There is evidence to suggest that when we do exercise together, it furthers boosts our wellbeing. Nature is another known stress reducer, so if the option is there, consider the outdoors for your moves.

Written by Anna Petinsky. A Psychotherapist on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, she is known for her passion to support emotional wellbeing when our health is threatened, after experiencing cancer in her own family. She provides counselling to the Pink Hope community at a reduced rate. To get in contact with Anna, follow this link. 

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