Movement and mental health: 3 surprising connections

Physical activity is good for you, there’s no arguing with that. But Erica Hornthal, LCPC, BC-DMT, a board-certified dance/movement therapist and licensed clinical professional counselor, wants you to pay more attention to her relationship between movement and mental health. That’s because it’s not just a question of if, but What, you are moving determines if the connection is positive or negative. It is the focus of his new book, conscious body, which was inspired in part by seeing how the pandemic affected the movement practices and mental health of its clients. She also shares learnings from Hornthal’s years as a dance/movement therapist.

“Most of our communication is non-verbal,” she says. “And yet, when it comes to mental health, we rely on the 10 percent of our communication that is verbal to uncover, release, and reconfigure these huge mental and emotional issues. Dance/movement therapy is about using movement to tap into our body’s needs and get to the root cause of why we feel what we feel.”

Below, Hornthal shares the most important takeaways from his book and how movement, whether as part of exercise or daily life, plays a role in our overall mental and emotional health.

Taking a “bottom-up” approach to our mental health can develop better thought patterns and behaviors

To really understand how the way we move affects our mental health, we need to understand how deep the connection between mind and body is, says Hornthal. This recognition is often missing from traditional mental health interventions that focus on talk therapy, affirmations or changing thought patterns, she says.

While such mind-focused strategies can sometimes work well on their own, Hornthal says, he sees them as taking a “top-down” approach, rather than the “bottom-up” approach that prioritizes the body and that she has found most useful. “When our nervous system is stuck in a stress response, we can’t reason our way out of it, we have to feel our way through,” she says. “To really change our thoughts, we have to see how our bodies contribute to and support those thoughts because, believe it or not, that’s where they originate. They are sensations, they are experiences; taking in information through the body creates those thought patterns and habits.”

The first step in this “bottom-up” approach, Hornthal says, is noticing how your body responds when you feel a certain way: “Am I tense? Am I stiff? How much space am I taking up? how do I move during the day? If we can start noticing that,” he says, “and then start to challenge it, or expand the way we move in that moment, we can bypass mental patterns.”

Exercising without self-awareness can negatively affect your mental health

This deep mind-body connection doesn’t shut down when you’re in training mode; in fact, as Hornthal puts it, “when we move more, we feel more, and that’s not always a good thing.” Take running, for example. “If I’m moving, forward, forward, and I find it hard to slow down, sprinting won’t help me change that pattern,” says Hornthal. “It’s just going to perpetuate the go, go go,” and he added that he has worked with runners who, upon reflection, realized they were running from something. The idea is not to give up the exercise you love, he says, but to approach it with more intention and “implement other spectrums of motion,” which for the “on-the-go” runner may be a little slower. like tai chi.

That’s not to say that how beneficial a form of exercise is to your mental health correlates only with its level of intensity. “Even yoga can cause anxiety,” says Hornthal. “It’s not the practice, it’s the execution.”

How do you know if your current exercise routine is bad for your mental health? Hornthal suggests doing a pre- and post-workout test, paying attention to how you feel before and after your workout. While exercise can leave you physically exhausted, he says, it should make you feel emotionally energized and recharged, or like you’ve been able to release something.

Movement can build emotional resilience

Hornthal says that just as changing your exercise routine can strengthen your body, creating a “strong movement vocabulary” can also build emotional resilience. “If I’m used to moving around,” she says, “if something comes my way, I might not expect it, but I’m more able to get back on my feet to handle whatever comes.”

The same logic applies on an emotional level, she says. “It’s about trying new movements, or expanding the reach or range of the movement you’re currently doing,” he says, which might mean identifying if you’re just using your lower body, or noticing that you’re often moving forward and backwards, but never turning or moving from side to side. She also suggests “expanding your definition of movement,” incorporating more fun into everyday life, like dancing while doing chores or kicking around a ball in the park.

“We do these moves when we’re kids and then as we get older we don’t have time to play when we need it most,” he says. “We don’t have movement at our disposal, or we say ‘I’m not free anymore, I can’t do that.’ So having a strong vocabulary of movement is literally building the built-in dictionary that we carry with us.”

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