Get Moving: The links between physical exercise and psychological states

This week, in the last of the series on self regulation, we are going to talk about exercise and movement. For many exercise is something extra they must do every day, but in reality movement is part of what regulates your body throughout the day. 

It starts with breathing. As you breathe you regulate your sympathetic and para sympathetic parts of your nervous system. You do this through what is known as heart rate variability. Many of us who work in the exercise and health care fields use this number to understand how healthy your cardiovascular system is, however in my world of somatic psychology I can also use it to program movement to help you change your psychological states. This manipulation of your physical system allows for another option to change how you feel without the same level of concentration changing your thoughts may take. 

Mind & Body as One

Lots of people talk about the mind – body connection and how important is is to your health. To me there is no separation. If we want to know if you are stressed we would look at your cortisol levels in your saliva, depressed check out your blood serotonin levels, how well you are absorbing the nutrients you need to make the neurotransmitters to feel content, pleasure, calm, and control your impulses (physical and thought based) we could examine your feces. 

The body and mind do not have a connection point. They are one thing. The mind just has the ability to abstractly consider your experiences and decide what you would like them to mean. This ability gives the impression that the body is separate from the mind, but the mind has nothing to make meaning of if it does not have the body experiences to decipher. Understanding this oneness helps make more sense of our need for movement to regulate our emotions. 

My Research Findings

When I was doing my doctoral research, it was hard to find the bridges to understanding how our physical health intersects our mental health. There were studies with some longevity looking at how aerobic exercise helped depression, anxiety, bi-polar, and even schizophrenia. We could see how exercise impacted stress levels and anecdotally I heard many stories of people who were helped by regular exercise. However, so many people struggle to work out it was hard to understand how psychological struggle was associated with lack of exercise when we know how helpful it is. Turns out there is correlation between how physically stressed your system is and how hard it is for you to exercise. In my research I found that those who struggled with panic disorder (that feeling like you are having a heart attack, going to die, cannot breathe, and are so scared that you cannot think. Sometimes even feel as though you are losing your mind) is the hardest disorder to get enough physical exercise to meet your needs. Problem is, physical exercise is what helps metabolize the chemicals out of your system and decrease your feelings of panic and stress. As the cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones rise in the system, they feed the symptoms creating a self fulfilling cycle of increasing stress levels. Thus making it harder and harder for the person to physically exercise.

Anxiety and Stress

For the person without panic, but with anxiety and stress overload, struggling to exercise is often linked in a similar fashion just not at the same level. It is hard to motivate and get out the door when your physical system is already so tired and feeling overwhelmed. People will describe feeling heavy, lethargic, slow thinking, or in contrast “tired but wired”. As a result exercise seems too hard and it is much easier to grab a substance to unwind or sit and watch TV. 

Depression

Depression is similar but different. In a depressed system every thing feels hard to manage and the body is very fatigued. It is a similar stress on the physical system, but depressed, a different manifestation of difficulties. When feeling depressed we often struggle to see the point of doing anything. People describe feeling heavy, lethargic, overwhelmed, increased sensitivity to pain, and inability to take care of basic living tasks. These make getting on the treadmill pretty darn hard. 

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How to Help Yourself Start Exercising

One thing interesting from my research was the fact that the more substance use disorder diagnoses someone had the more likely they were to exercise and the less likely they were to buy into barrier beliefs to accomplishing the tasks of working out. What they told me was, they had to move – they’d lost their license and had to ride bikes, walk, and “there isn’t much to do in jail”. As a result they were exposed to movement regularly and therefore saw and felt the benefits and kept the habit going while they could. As a result of their insight it became apparent that exposure was important to helping others begin the process of working out regularly. Enter movement specifically designed to help mental health diagnosed disorders – depression, anxiety, PTSD, phobia, bi-polar, ADHD. I routinely prescribe physical movement along side traditional therapy interventions because the research is pretty clear, exercise helps. It teaches us a lot about ourselves. 

The research links between physical movement and mental health is growing. There is more and more research coming out everyday looking at how the physical system changes as a result of our thinking and how our thinking is changed by our movements. 

So today, just move. Take a moment, get out of your chair or bed and walk around. As you move the body notice what movements might feel good. Based on your current mental state do you want to move slow or fast? Do you want to be close to the ground or jumping? Do you want to be “quiet” in your moments or “loud”? Move slow or explosive?

Use your inner awareness of your current mental health state to determine what movement would be best for you right now … Now go do that.

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