Affecting Emotional Health Through Movement
When I decided to go through my Pilates teacher training, I was experiencing depression and anxiety. I had been fired from my job as an IT professional, and was extremely dissatisfied with my career. I knew that I would continue to be unhappy with my life if I continued to work in a field that I disliked, so I decided to take a risk and completely change my life. I discovered that I improved my emotional health with mindful movement.
About 3 years prior, I had gone through an epiphany about my level of physical activity. One night as I was falling asleep, I was ruminating in a typical pattern about my physical and emotional state. I was simultaneously seeking to place external blame for my pain, and also contenting myself with a magic bullet theory that everything would someday be resolved through none of my own effort. I experienced a breakthrough in my thoughts when I randomly wondered how would those arguments hold up when I was on my figurative deathbed. I realized that in that hypothetical moment, I couldn’t reasonably hold anyone other than myself accountable for the state of my body, or any lack of attention and care that I had chosen to give it.
This realization changed my life. I made the connection that I logically couldn’t blame others for my own choices, and made a decision that I needed to change my behavior from that moment on. After that I started a mindful exercise program that I did in my spare time. I developed a passion for being mindfully engaged in a physical routine of movement. I began to feel more at ease with myself on a physical and emotional level, and my practice provided me distance from the negative cognitive loop and destructive behavior that I was engaging in at that time.
This led to my decision to pursue becoming a teacher of mindful movement once I lost my IT job. My progress up until that point gave me the courage and the emotional stability to take the risk of being economically unstable for a period of time. I went through a program to be a teacher of the exercise method created by Joseph Pilates, the premise of which is uniform development of the body. In other words, rather than relying on the current strengths in one’s body, the Pilates method seeks to identify the weaker, underused parts of one’s physiology and to integrate and strengthen those muscles. In going through my teacher training program and in my subsequent experience as a teacher, I realized that the uniform development translated to the emotional resilience of a person, after I observed beneficial psychological improvements in myself as well as in my clients. I became convinced that engaging in a mindful movement practice produced a positive effect on the regulation of one’s emotions.
Mood enhancing benefits are commonly attributed to endorphins, a neurotransmitter in the body. But the psychological effects that I experienced were more long-lasting than the “endorphin high” and seemed to have more permanently affected my thoughts, behavior and emotional well-being. For example, on a physiological level I experienced enhanced proprioception, e.g. I was able to actually sense my hamstrings working whereas before there was virtually no feeling. My intuition told me that increasing the sensory data and awareness in those parts of my body enabled me to have access to different parts of my cognitive processes, or at least allow me to interrupt my usual pattern.
This piece seeks to define our sensory experience of movement, how emotion is integrated into this system, and cites studies that show how using the body as a route into this system combined with the use of psychotherapy has demonstrated improved emotional experience.
We detect and organize physical stimulus through our sense organs in our bodies. Sensation is the detection of external stimulus and transmits information about the stimulus to the brain. Our perception is the result of those signals being organized, processed and interpreted in the somatosensory cortex. The perception of bodily movement is communicated and perceived through the somatosensory system. The somatosensory system is comprised of neural receptors located mainly in the skin and certain internal organs for perceptions of pressure, temperature, body position and pain (Grison, Heatherton, Gazzaniga, 2015, pp. 155). The sense that informs a body of the relative position of the joints and limbs of the body in space, and integrates movement, position and acceleration is proprioception. In the context of sensorimotor psychotherapy, it is a level of processing, “or core organizer of experience” (Langmuir, Kirsh, Classen, 2011).
Emotion as the Original Sense
In 2014, Katherine Peil supported this assertion that emotion is a core organizer through her argument that emotion should be reconceived by the medical and psychological community as it’s own unique and “primary somatosensory system”.
In evolutionary terms, emotion could be considered the original sense of all living organisms due to it’s role in self-regulation of biological systems. Biological regulatory systems of living systems stem from the function of regulatory signaling and motor control mechanisms. These processes are comprised of stimulus/response relationships that can be considered a form of computation, or information processing in nature. This information processing is present in all organisms from single-celled to simple forms to more complex organisms like humans.
Essentially, emotional sensations are “felt evaluations” of positive and negative stimulus that require a regulatory response. Optimal homeostasis of an organism, or a deficiency can be derived from the binary system these signals represent. Emotion has been theorized to be a function of relevance detection and information signaling for resource mobilization and conservation. Biological organization in evolution as being bottom-up system shows emotion as a primary sense.
The “self” of an organism arises from the self-regulatory sensations present in all organisms, which denotes sensorimotor regulation in all life forms, and in all stages of development of the human body. This original communication system is comprised of the signaling and “self-organizing language—the self-regulatory music” of our bodies.
“In whatever form of “subjective experience” these original sensations may have yielded, in functional terms they would deliver primal perceptions of time, space and self—an inaugural glimmer of a body-self moving within its not-self surroundings, at some point constituting the “feeling of being” or “how it feels to be alive.” Hence, in far more complex bodies in motion (mammals, other primates, and humans), each emotional feeling perception still reflects “a wave of bodily disturbance,” or the “bodily affections,” or “the feeling of what is happening”. (Peil, p. 81).
Application of Psychotherapy.
The “bottom-up” concept in the evolution of emotion is echoed in the field of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. In 2011, Ogden, Pain, Minton and Fisher suggested that psychotherapists could approach patient in an alternative manner from the top-down approach of talk therapy. The aim to “not only to alleviate symptoms and resolve the traumatic past, but also to help clients experience a reorganized sense of self. The sense of self emerges not only in the context of beliefs, metaphors, and emotional responses but also out of the physical organization of the body”.
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is a departure from the traditional therapeutic approach through the use of language. Therapists traditionally only treat and monitor physical and physiological states, and prescribe medications when necessary. They observe posture and physical presentation and note changes in appearance or agitates movements. Rarely has the body has been considered in the “talking cure”. The premise of SP, is that therapists can benefit from a body oriented approach that includes the body as central.
This is demonstrated by the treatment of trauma. Trauma has profound effects on the nervous system. Symptoms are often somatically driven, they nearly always report “unregulated body experience, uncontrollable cascade of unmanageable strong emotions and physical experiences triggered by reminders of the traumatic event, replays endlessly in the body. It is often this chronic physiological arousal that is at the root of recurring symptoms that prompt the seeking of therapy.
Somatosensory Psychotherapy (SP) aims to facilitate successful affective connection to painful past experience, while addressing accompanying cognitive distortions, in order to relieve suffering and improve one’s sense of well being. It seeks to bring about a change in belief and sense of self through a process of narrative expression.
The current working premise is that changing the cognition and emotions in a significant manner effects the change in the embodied experience and physical self of a client. Using language as the the narrative entry point to reveal a patient’s internal models, and to explore verbal representations.
The addition of interventions that address the repetitive, unbidden, physical sensations, inhibition in movement, somatosensory intrusions of unresolved trauma is useful because it includes an alternative entry-point to address the trauma related to symptoms of the client.
Ogden, Pain, Minton and Fisher (2005) state that they believe that physical interventions alone are insufficient in affecting these symptoms, they propose a blended model of talk and somatic therapy.
This recommendation is supported by studies on trauma-related symptoms being affected by the application of SP and group therapy. A study done by Langmuir, Kirsh and Classen (2011) took subjects with trauma- related symptoms, and taught them mindfulness and somatic awareness exercises in a group setting. Participants in the study showed “significant improvement in body awareness, dissociation, and receptivity to soothing”, and preliminary evidence of the effectiveness of SP in reducing trauma-related symptoms when used in the setting of SP induced group therapy. The study was inconclusive whether the changes were due to the participants raised somatic awareness, and may indicate that the inclusion of group therapy in combination with the physical exercise led to the affective result.
Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) has also been shown to effectively treated through the use of exercise. Rethorst and Trivedi (2013) report that in randomized controlled trials of the efficacy of exercise in the treatment of MDD was tested, that individuals that exercised reported a reduction in depressive symptoms and also in increased remission rates. The treatment response was even greater in groups that did resistance-based exercise, pointing to mindfulness being a factor in the reduction of symptoms.
Considering that the basis of emotion is the interpretation and organization of our sense of self and of being on a cellular level, it is logical to conclude that approaching the physiology of a patient, in combination with talk therapy, is a viable alternative model for addressing deficiencies in emotional well-being. Evidence indicates that reorganizing one’s body and structure through the use of exercise and mindful movement does in fact affect the body’s original and primary sense of emotion.
Grison, S., Heatherton, T. F., Gazzaniga, M.S. (2015). Psychology in Your Life. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, Pages 155-156.
Peil K.T., Emotion: the self-regulatory sense. Global Adv Health Med. 2014;3(2):80-108
Langmuir, J. I., Kirsh, S. G., Classen, C. C. (2011). A Pilot Study of Body-Oriented Group Psychotherapy: Adapting Sensorimotor Psychotherapy for the Group Treatment of Trauma. American Psychological Association 2012, Vol. 4, No. 2, 214 –220
Ogden, P., Minton K. & Pain, C. (2006) Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to
Psychotherapy. New York: Norton.
Rethorst, C. D., Madhuakr, T. H., Evidence-Based Recommendations for the Prescription of Exercise for Major Depressive Disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Practice Vol. 19, No. 3 pp.204-212
Author’s note: I wrote this paper for my Naropa University Western Psychology class with Tammy McKaskle.