This article will help in understanding and incorporating physical movement systems into psychological treatment. It is presented by Stacy Reuille-Dupont, PhD, LPC, CPFT
Movement facilitates the physical wiring and structure of being. Movement creates concrete manifestation of the abstract. The embodied experience becomes tangible. Even a thought or emotional experience is movement at the cellular level.
- Stacy Reuille-Dupont, PhD, LAC, USABP presentation, 2018
Many struggle to own the power of physical experience. In fact, on average people with mental health illness die younger and use more health care services. Medical staff struggle to treat and diagnose accurately, and they engage in costly medical treatment more often than those with mental wellness. They often present to physical health care providers with 5 or more unrelated symptom presentations. This is because addiction, trauma, and experience live in the tissues. These experiences create “knots” in the system. These knots embed in layers of muscle and facia that evolve to create adaptive ways of dealing with the world, however many are powerless in their somatic experience of life. They are disembodied and look outside themselves to be fixed. As they become less connected to self they also become less connected to others, community, society, etc. The looking for external solutions to internal problems becomes a distraction. The body has everything it needs to address a problem, but many are so disembodied and scared of somatic sensation they let go of this power and become more disconnected. This is where movement helps. Movement returns focus to the body, it returns focus to deeply knowing one’s truth, and it returns focus to personal power. This article will review areas of the body and psychology impacted by movement and discuss how different movements allow for change in the whole system.
Starting with subtle levels of movement we cannot underestimate the endocrine system. The area I have studied most links the endocrine system to psychological trauma disruptions (Reuille-Dupont, 2014). Whether a trauma is physical (broken bone) or psychological (emotional neglect) the Hypothalamus - Pituitary - Adrenal (HPA) Axis gets involved. As a result chemistry shifts. When chemistry shifts the perception of the situation changes. Shifts can be positive or negative, however if stress hormones are not metabolized they wreck havoc on other tissues and may contribute to increases in chronic pain, inflammation, digestive, and immune disorders (Kiecolt-Glaser, McGuire, Robles, & Glaser, 2002). Physical movement can also target the HPA axis, however does so in a way that metabolizes the bio-chemicals and dysfunctional muscle patterns (Droste, Gesing, Ulbricht, Müller, Linthorst, & Reul, 2003). The endocrine system is often dubbed the “little central nervous system” for its control and care of the body’s experience. When looking at how the endocrine system influences the perception of experience by changing how the body feels in any given state, the endocrine system becomes a tangible system influenced through thoughts, emotional states, ingestion (food, news, media, social influence, environmental items, etc), and movement. Thus as movement is introduced the body becomes an active vehicle to change perception of experiences.
The body is a great antenna, but the brain does not have its own direct inputs, inputs are the senses. Sense experiences all come through the body. The body collects the information, sends findings through nervous system channels and reports to the brain. The brain works tirelessly to categorize and direct responses to stimuli for survival. If one is constantly living in reaction to past events rather than response to current experience the system becomes rigid in response options. To be a responder to present moment experiences one must learn to slow down reaction. This happens by increasing capacity for physical sensation. Therefore the brain judges the situation differently based on present moment reality and not past experience reactions when the body is able to experience the situation with capacity. Movement becomes the vehicle to slow or speed the nervous system response.
The movement of the nervous system is subtle. For instance, movement can be used to shift posture. As movement increases, heart rate rises, as heart rate rises the nervous system reports to the brain which determines if this is a good situation or not. In my office (within a large community mental health and integrated care center), I found many examples of people who needed to exercise yet could not. Their brains kept registering rising heart rate, quickening breath, and sweat response as panic and would shut down the system. The physical sensations of exercise were tipping them outside the window of tolerance. Helping people understand the responses in the body is important. It gives space to pause, decide desired outcomes, and options for reaction. It can be as simple as using a pressure point. For many familiar with communication lines within the body, location points for contact are important and we know putting pressure on them influences other systems, such as the endocrine, facia, or muscular systems. An easy one I often teach my clients is the 3rd eye point. By putting pressure on this point (between the eyebrows) we have a direct way to lower heart rate and slow breathing. Depending on the client I have them get into different positions allowing pressure to be exerted on this point and notice what happens. It could look as simple as having them press on it with their hand, I can press on it for them, or have them put their head on a desk, counter, the wall, or other hard surface. There are many points we can use to shift the communication of the nervous system to the brain, and most clients can learn and discretely perform on their own at home, school, or work when needed.
Heart Rate and the Circulatory System
Slowing the heart and breath bring us to the circulatory system. All changes, mental or physical, are transmitted through the central nervous system, which controls heart rate via the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses (Appelhans & Luecken, 2006). These responses signal to the brain to expand or contract from experience. Taking a slightly wider gaze on this connection, it is the heart that influences how we respond, it is the piece of us that is in control of everything else. It is often thought the brain directs it all, and make no mistake the brain is very very very important, but it is the heart that tells the brain what to categorize. The heart is the conductor of the orchestra that is the brain. It communicates our experience through heart rate variability. Heart rate variability changes with each breath directing the brain in its categorization of experience. Safe or not? Connect or not?
The heart has its own electrical system. Looking at electrical theory one can see that electrical systems either repel or collapse into each other. If my experience of you is safe, I will expand my electrical system to meet your’s. We may become one electrical field, and we can see and feel these connections between people. As a result of connecting to you, I will mirror you, viscerally respond to you, and will “know” things about your experience. When people get stuck this system gets rigid. People become stuck in old patterns, orient from fear, or struggle to effectively manage limbic resonance experiences. Some people lack an ability to connect to the somatic experience of another (bound), some people are overly connected (unbounded). Both experiences create problems for social engagement of the nervous system. Due to respiratory sinus arrhythmia, the connection between the breath and heart rate, one influences the other (Porges, 2007). If I want someone to be more active, say to treat depression which is lethargic, heavy, slow, and often stuck energy, I can match the current heart rate with movement and raise it slightly (the next section will discuss movement as treatment).
A simple way to influence this system in your office is to slow down your breathing. By slowing your breath rate, you will slow your heart rate, by slowing your heart rate your electrical pattern changes in the field. As this happens your client (if they trust you) will match you. Thus processing difficult pieces of psychological work feels more supported and builds capacity to experience themselves and others with less reactivity.
Musculature and Facia System
If I can get connected to my client using my subtle breath, imagine what big movement systems can do. The trick to using the bigger systems is to know how to influence them. Posture impacts our psychology and our psychology impacts our posture. For example, if I am stressed I may internally rotate my shoulder joint collapsing my chest, making it more difficult to breathe. The change in my breath rate changes my heart rate and influences my sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Over time my upper back and neck shift into what is known as forward head. This creates stress on the muscle and joint configurations. The muscles respond by tightening, eventually becoming “knotted”. These knots are deposits of different pro-inflammatory and biochemicals (Shah, Thaker, Heimur, Aredo, Sikdar, & Gerber, 2015). The muscles begin to shift movement patterns around the trigger points. The adaptation eventually results in dysfunctional movement patterns and stress on the system. This process could start as a physical injury or an emotional one. Remember the body is the vehicle through which all experience is processed.
Eliminating the adhesions in the physical structures can help eliminate them in the mind as well (many modalities exist to do this: massage, exercise, dance, yoga, tai chi, chi gong, acupressure/acupuncture, dry needling, rolfing, physical therapy, chiropractic, etc.). The trick is often in practitioner and modality connection. If the client becomes connected to the practitioner and the modality fits the client’s personality it is likely they will find relief from it. In our offices we can use the gross motor systems to program movement to access psychological healing.
Movement to Heal
As an exercise scientist and personal trainer/group exercise instructor for over 20 years, I am pretty confident at figuring out how to program someone’s physical strength and endurance. As a clinician for over a decade, I feel like I am pretty good at figuring out how to help shift behavior and belief. However, in my office many of my clients would not participate with me. I couldn’t figure it out. I was starting small, meeting them where they were, and the math of physiological change was solid. I looked deeper and did research around what was getting in the way of actually participating in physical exercise. I thought it was psychological trauma experiences, as many described symptoms while exercising that overlapped window of tolerance literature. For the population I studied, it was not trauma, it was panic that mitigated the ability to participate no matter how strong the belief in exercise as a modality to help address a variety of issues. In addition, exposure to exercise created an expanded range (larger window of tolerance to physical sensations). As a result, I learned that offering movement experiences modulated by psychological theory to address stress disorders, especially panic, helped people adhere to a movement program that addressed physical and psychological disorders (Reuille-Dupont, 2014). With these findings I was able to create a variety of movement programs and experiences clients could use to heal mental health presentations.
When choosing appropriate movement interventions one must consider the client’s current state. You cannot ask a person with deep depression to engage in high intensity “bouncy” exercise. The energy of depression is heavy, slow, lethargic, stuck. We have to start with movements that match and then increase the upward energy in small increments. For someone with ADHD or high anxiety with racing thoughts yin/yang yoga is miserable. They may even struggle with power vinyasa due to lack of ability to focus well. By programming movement to shift quickly and often, sometimes in a chaotic pattern then increasing the rhythmic content slowly we help them meet the racing mind and teach clients to direct it. In addition, we must consider physical limitations, physical health conditions, physiological understanding of heart rate, sweating, breath rate as they link to panic (findings in my research), disorganized body presentations, and psychosis. Someone having a psychotic or manic episode may be able to work with you but be ready to adapt quickly and often. Below are some ways I use movement in my office.
Walking is a big focus in my practice. I take them outside and have a treadmill in my office to help people understand heart rate training zones and teach them about the physiology of fear. This allows them to have an experience while walking in a safe environment and learn to modulate their own breath and heart rate. It also helps them get comfortable with tension in the muscles and sweat rates, both can signal danger to the brain and exacerbate psychological symptomology.
Posture. I often use posture to help determine the psychological structure of a person’s belief patterns: where are they hiding, projecting, collapsing, etc. By watching planes of movement, postural deviations, and simple movements you can see where the body is blocked, armored, or adapting. By using theory around body and psychological wounding presentations I can then choose exercise patterns that match locomotor and psychological development phases.
Here are 3 examples of movements I use in my office to engage clients in corrective experiences:
Feet are very interesting places to start. By having the client walk we can see what is happening in the pelvis, spine, chest, and head. All movement should come from the core and should be somewhat equal in gait. You should be able to see rotations throughout the foot, leg, and hip structures. This gives a lot of information about armoring and world view. When working with sexual trauma or eating disorders the feet are a great place to start because they give access to the inner thigh, perineum, and pelvic floor areas of the body that are often hyper/hypo active. By manipulating which part of the foot the client is paying attention to (different toes, heel, arches, etc) we can create sensation in the leg and pelvis. This allows for safe processing and reconnecting with these physical structures and allows healing of psychological wounding and physical issues that may also be present. In addition, it allows discussion around items like safety, security, strength, stability, etc that are often early life psychological wounds. Sometimes I do this work in my office, other times it is homework.
Tabatta. For this I would suggest you have advanced training, however, I think the example can help you conceptualize how you might adapt movement in your office. Tabatta style training is intense structured work lasting 4 minutes. It is cardiovascular in nature (see about for information on Heart Rate Variability), but can incorporate strength as well. There are a number of similar modifications/training modalities that can be adapted for use with a variety of clients. For these exercises I work with the client to determine core wounding patterns and corrective belief statements. Then I choose an exercise to represent the locomotor development at the stage of core wounding and we run intervals. During the intervals I act in ways that can be corrective - offering help and support, checking for safety, and repeating corrective statements. Often by the end of the 4 minute cycle clients have “wired” in a new pattern. Although I am still doing research on this method, so far the results are positive for corrective change, depth oriented work, and mindfulness ability.
HITT Training Exercises. I often use these for cravings. These are a variety of movements that include power training (strength and speed together). By asking clients to do a difficult movement for a short period of time we “short-circuit” the craving. Many of my clients have addictive patterns and this “gets them out of their heads”. It changes the physiology and helps get around negative thinking and habitual behavior patterns. Good examples are burpees, jumping lunges/squats, or pushups. A note of caution, make sure you understand the clients true ability and risk for injury before prescribing, and when working with eating disorders assess for ability to maintain the prescribed time limits, some folks will over use and perpetuate exercise addiction behaviors.
As said in the beginning, movement is what anchors the experience. By choosing the right movement for the right disorder, matching the person’s personality, psychological presentation, and intended corrective experience interventions, movement lends itself to effective mental health treatments and can help heal physical health problems as well. By helping people learn to move effectively, they are also taught about personal power, inspiration, personal space, boundaries, strength, healthy eating patterns (think food/mood/microbiome), and decision making skills. There are many options and ideas, some very simple to start or send the client home to explore between sessions. As you consider adding movement into your practice, where do you think you will start?To get the full video lecture on this with more insights and ways to work with clients click here
Appelhans, B. M., and Luecken, L. J. (2006). Heart rate variability as an index of regulated emotional responding. Review of General Psychology, 10(3), 229-240. DOI: 10.1037/1089-2618.104.22.168
Droste, S. K., Gesing, A., Ulbricht, S., Müller, M. B., Linthorst, C, E., & Reul, J. M. H. M. (2003). Effects of long-term voluntary exercise on the mouse hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis. Endocrinology 144(7). 3012-3023. DOI: 10.1210/en.2003.0097
Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., McGuire, L., Robles, T. F., & Glaser, R. (2002). Psychoneuroimmuology: Psychological influences on immune function and health. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 70(3). 537-547. DOI: 10.1037///0022-006X.70.3.537
Porges, S. W. (2007). A phylogenetic journey through the vague and ambiguous Xth cranial nerve: A commentary on contemporary heart rate variability research. Biological Psychology 74(2). 301-307.
Reuille-Dupont, S. (2014). Impact Psychological symptom severity on leisure time exercise behavior and perceived benefits and barriers to physical exercise. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest. (UMI Number 3686498)
Shah, J. P., Thaker, N., Heimur, J., Aredo, J. V., Sikdar, S., & Gerber, L. (2015). Myofascial trigger points then and now: A historical and scientific perspective. PM&R The Journal of Injury, Function, and Rehabilitation 746-761. DOI: 10.1016/j.pmrj.2015.01.024
Stacy Reuille-Dupont, PhD, LPC, CPFT holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology/Somatic Psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and licensed addiction counselor. Her psychology practice looks at the impacts of physical exercise on mental health symptoms. More at her psychology practice website: www.stacyreuille.com or blog: www.stacyrd.com where she blogs about psychology, movement, and health from the inside out.