It’s no surprise that movement can help us manage stress and anxiety. In that context, we’re usually talking about some form of exercise, mental or physical. Movement, however, means more than just exercise, and even if you don’t consider yourself a “mover” or a dancer, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a connection to these healing practices.
Movement is our first language, as seen in the ways young children dance for pleasure, to exhibit excitement, or to express big emotions when words are inaccessible. We move before we speak. Even when we aren’t intentionally engaging in movement, there is movement happening on a cellular level; our hearts are beating, our lungs are expanding and contracting, and blood is coursing through our veins.
How we are currently moving our bodies—with gestures, postures, and expressions—is even more important to consider when it comes to our mental health. These are subtle and often automated movements that unless challenged can perpetuate our stress and anxiety. So, what can we do to manage our anxiety outside of the realms of exercise?
Here are five tips for managing anxiety that do not require any equipment or previous movement experience.
1. Daily Check-In
You are moving all the time, but so much of it is unconscious. In order to become more aware of your body, you must pay attention. You are already using your phone, right? So, make it work for you. Set a reminder or alarm on your mobile device to check in with your body. How does it feel? What parts of your body are tight? Loose? What parts are you aware of, and what parts need more attention? One minute of focus and attention on what you are experiencing in your body can have a large impact on how and what you feel in your mind.
2. Approach Discomfort in Your Movement
Engaging in the same movement pattern or habits doesn’t do anything for your body or mind. In fact, it can reinforce the stuck feeling you may already be experiencing.
Challenge your movement. It is in the discomfort where you grow and change.
[Listen to an audio meditation: “In the Flow of Discomfort.”]
For example, try using your non-dominant hand or side. If you always sit with one leg crossed, try crossing the other one instead. Always brush your teeth and hair with the same hand? Trying switching to challenge those ingrained movement habits. Notice what movement is safe and comfortable, and invite in the possibility or potential for something out of your comfort zone.
Of course, just the thought of going outside your comfort zone can sometimes bring on anxiety. It’s important not to push yourself but, again, to challenge even the idea of new and different movements.
3. Stretch Your Body to Stretch Your Mind
Just like we contort our bodies to maintain or expel body heat, we can expand our bodies to facilitate a greater ability to manage our emotions. Increasing the surface area, so to speak, of the body by stretching or reaching into the space around us supports moving stuck or anxious energy and tension which allows us to dispel dis-ease.
This can be done before you get out of bed in the morning. Roll to your back, if possible, and try reaching your arms and legs into their respective corners of the bed. Breathe in before you begin and reach as you exhale. You can even try oscillating between curling into a ball and transitioning into a giant X. This can also be done on the floor or even standing up. Moving our bodies can help to move our minds in ways that enhance a sense of calm, peace, and acceptance.
4. Pay Attention to Involuntary Movement
We can initiate movement from the places in the body where involuntary, subtle, and often unconscious movement is naturally occurring. These involuntary movements can be a starting place for establishing safety and security in the body.
Begin by noticing your breath, your heartbeat, or even the parts of your body that are still. Often finding the quiet within the body allows for the mind to follow or at the very least invites in curiosity and compassion. Use your breath as a starting point to invite in gentle stretching, swaying, or even walking. Follow the rhythm of your heartbeat to initiate a marching or a tapping of the toes and fingers. This invitation can be just the motivation you need to get your body moving in new ways that allow for a shift to occur, making space for release and recuperation.
5. Get Creative
It is vital to connect to movement that supports creative expression, authenticity, meaning, and purpose. In a world where we might engage in behavior that pushes us to move in ways that we don’t want or even need, it’s important to practice moving in ways that feel desirable and freeing.
Moreover, movement practices that facilitate self-awareness, self-expression, and identity exploration are greatly lacking in traditional places of exercise and fitness.
Find ways to tap into movement that is authentic to who you are and how you want to feel. We often engage in movement because we’re told it’s good for us, but this can perpetuate overwhelm and anxiety. For example, going for a run might not necessarily regulate your nervous system if psychologically you are prone to running from things. Yoga is a wonderful suggestion, but is often too difficult for many people to engage in as it can stir up uncomfortable emotions.
[Read: “4 Movement Practices for Wellness (That Aren’t Yoga)”]
Try instead moving in a way that feels natural. This could be in the form of an impromptu dance party in your living room, a walk around the block, perhaps even a visit to your local playground or park. When we move with the rhythms and energy currently in the body, rather than counter to it, we support anxiety relief. This opens a path directly to where we hold the anxiety and a physical outlet to externalize it.
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When we increase the movements at our disposal—our movement repertoire—we actually change our ability to manage stressors that life throws at us. We can increase our resilience and our ability to enjoy the present moment in order to live with greater satisfaction and joy.
Remember to keep it simple by starting with the movement already present. Be gentle with yourself and know that when you move your body you facilitate the ability to move through the challenges of life.
Does exercise stress you out? Try this intuitive movement practice.