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 your relationship between movement and mental health. It’s not just a matter of if, but because of that how, you move that determines whether the connection is positive or negative. This is the focus of his new book, Body conscious, which was inspired in part by seeing how her clients’ movement practices and mental health were affected by the pandemic. It also shares learnings from Hornthal’s years as a dance/movement therapist.
“Most of our communication is nonverbal,” she says. “And yet, when it comes to mental health, we rely on the 10 percent of our communication that is verbal to uncover, express, and reframe these huge mental and emotional issues. Dance/movement therapy is about using movement to tap into our body’s needs and we Feelings are about finding the root cause of why we feel them.
Below, Hornthal shares the biggest takeaways from her book, and how movement—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 lead to better thinking and behavior
To really understand how our movement affects our mental health, we need to understand how deep the mind-body connection is, says Hornthal. This recognition is often lacking in traditional mental health interventions that focus on talk therapy, affirmations or changing thought patterns, she says.
While sometimes those mind-focused techniques can work well on their own, Hornthal says, he sees them as taking a “top-down” approach rather than the body-first, “bottom-up” approach that he finds more helpful. “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 out,” she says. “To truly change our thoughts, we need to look at how our bodies contribute to and support those thoughts, because, believe it or not, that’s where it originates. It’s sensation, it’s experience; receiving information through the body creates those thought patterns and habits. .”
The first step in this “bottom-up” approach, says Hornthal, is noticing how your body reacts when you’re feeling a certain way: “Am I tense? Am I rigid? How much space am I taking up? How do I get through the day?” What’s the rhythm of the movement? If we can start to notice that,” she says, “and then start to challenge it or stretch the way we’re moving in that moment, we can overcome the patterns of the mind.”
Exercise without self-awareness can negatively affect your mental health
This deep mind-body connection doesn’t stop when you’re in workout mode—in fact, as Hornthal says, “When we move more, we feel more—and that’s not always a positive thing.” Take running, for example. “If I’m going, go, go, and I’m having a hard time slowing down, sprinting isn’t really going to help me change that pattern,” says Hornthal. “It’s just going to last, go,” adds he’s worked with runners who, upon reflection, realize they’re running away from something. The idea, he says, is not to give up on your favorite exercise, but to approach it with more purpose and “implement a different spectrum of movement” — which might be slower for the “on-the-go” runner, like tai chi.
It goes without saying that how beneficial a form of exercise is to your mental health is only related to its level of intensity. “Even yoga can cause anxiety,” says Hornthal. “It’s not practice, it’s execution.”
How do you know if your current fitness routine is harmful to your mental health? By noting how you feel before and after your workout, Hornthal suggests doing a pre- and post-workout test. Although exercise can leave you physically exhausted, she says, it should leave you feeling emotionally energized and recharged, or that you’ve been able to express something.
Movement can build emotional resilience
Hornthal says that just as changing your exercise routine can make your body stronger, building a “strong movement vocabulary” can also build emotional resilience. “If I’m used to moving around,” she says, “if something comes at me, I can’t expect it, but I’m able to get back on my feet to handle what’s coming.”
The same logic applies on an emotional level, he says. “It’s about trying new movements, or expanding the reach or range of movements you’re currently doing,” she says, which means identifying if you’re only using your lower body or noticing that you’re moving back and forth too often. But never twist or move sideways. She recommends “broadening your definition of movement,” incorporating more playfulness into everyday life—like dancing while you work out, or kicking a ball around the park.
“We do these movements as children, and then when we get older, we don’t have time to play when we need it most,” she says. “We don’t have movement at our disposal, or we’re like, ‘I’m not free anymore—I can’t do it.’ So a strong movement vocabulary is literally creating the embodied dictionary we carry with us.”
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