The Ways Movement Helps You Minimize Stress

Take a clue from nature.

deer standing in a field staring towards the camera

Photo courtesy of Canva

How Animals Release Stress and Trauma

Animals use movement to relieve stress and trauma. Humans can use movement to facilitate the movement of stress and trauma, too. In the book, Waking the Tiger, by Peter Levine with Ann Fredrick, they describe what happens when an impala gets chased by a cheetah, and stumbles behind the herd.  The impala freezes, and lays limp as it is carried off by the cheetah.  When the cheetah lets its guard down, inside its den, the impala jumps up and runs off.  When the impala reaches safety, it shakes its whole body to shake away the stressful feelings.  This is key to healing, and removing long-term fear.  

Humans can learn from the animal kingdom.  We often don’t allow the stressful feelings to move through us, maybe because the trauma took place over many years during childhood, or we had some type of well-meaning, but inept intervention.  That well-meaning intervention could be things like inexperienced therapists, or other professionals that dredge up the trauma, with no understanding of how to heal it, or medications that mask symptoms, as a few examples.

Movement Can Help Us Too

Exercise can help reduce stress hormones in the body, and promote production of endorphins, the feel good hormones.  Any type of movement can help, from stretching, to walking, to strength training.  Movement can be fun too, like dancing, rollerblading, or surfing.

When you move your body, the endorphins released also promote relaxation, which helps you get better sleep, and that helps you relieve stress even more. Not only that, but while you’re out enjoying yourself, moving your body, your mind is distracted from stressful thoughts.

In this study, participants who exercised regularly, began a stressful task with a lower heart rate than other participants.  They were also more resilient to the emotional effects of acute stressors.

During traumatic experiences, people tend to shut down.  They stop sensing the feelings in their body.  Movement can get them back in touch with sensing in their body.

Kids have always known how important play and movement is.  Ask any teacher!  When I used to teach elementary school, there were a few times in the school year when we couldn’t get outside for recess.  If it was more than a day or two, we knew we were in trouble!  The students would become cranky, argue more often, and create behavior problems in the classroom.  I’ve read that French kids have two daily recess periods.  That always sounded like a dream to me as a teacher.  

My own kids would start to get rowdy at night before bedtime.  I would tell them to go out and run a few laps around the cul-de-sac.  I was kind of kidding, but not really.  Often, they would take me up on the chance.  They would race each other around, and then come back in, a little calmer, and closer to being ready for bed.  

Be like a kid, and take a few movement breaks during your day.  Walk to chat with a colleague at work, go outdoors for a walk during lunch, or take the stairs to get to an appointment.  If you work from home, take a short break every 40–90 minutes.  If you stay at home to care for kids, you get lots of movement already!

Some Movement Activities To Reduce Stress and Trauma

Activities that require deep breathing, balance, and mindfulness can help us get back into our bodies and the present moment, while releasing past stress or trauma.

Try one of these when you are feeling stressed, or to prevent stressful feelings:

  • Yoga
  • Dance
  • Tai Chi
  • Qigong
  • Clinical somatics
  • Bicycling
  • Gardening
  • Breathing exercises
  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Kickboxing
  • Team Sports
  • Strength training
  • Stretching
  • Play with your kids or grandkids

Build in movement routines throughout your day to help relieve stress and feelings of overwhelm, sadness, grief or anger.  If remembering to build in movement to your daily routine is hard for you, try pairing it with something you already do, like stretching immediately after you brush your teeth in the morning, or heading to a yoga class right after you drop your kids off at school.  Do some strength training or walking while you wait for your kid at soccer practice.  Start small and work your way up 20-30 minutes a day, and then do more when that becomes habit, if you can.  

Take a clue from the animals in nature around you to reduce stress and trauma through movement.  Just be sure to choose a type of exercise that makes you feel relaxed and happy.  You’ll be living more in the present moment, and less in the old, stressful, traumatic past.  

Which type of movement helps you feel calmer afterward?  Share in the comments to give us all ideas.

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