How mindful movement benefits mental health

How can mindful movement improve mental health? Until recently, the mind body connection was likely to be dismissed as ‘New Age’ pablum. Its importance for physical and mental health was often overlooked. However, Dance Movement Psychotherapists have known about the connection between movement, body awareness, cognition and emotion since the inception of the field. The ancient classic writings of Tai Chi Chuan also allude to it. Now neuroscientists have begun to understand the neural networks involved. Research shows that there is a relationship between sensory sensitivity (interoception) and the ability to regulate emotion.

Some of the evidence comes from studies of meditation and mindfulness-based interventions. These are practices which often involve body scans and/or awareness of bodily sensations. Interestingly, studies show that people who train in these methods are less reactive and more resilient. The reason for this is the somatosensory cortex. This is the part of the brain which processes these sensations. In addition, it plays a role in recognising, generating and regulating emotion. Unsurprisingly, alterations in the structure and function of this brain region have been found in several mental health problems. These include depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

In a recent article, a psychology expert suggests that mindfulness-based interventions be considered as ways to activate this important structure. In other words dance movement therapy or other body-centred approaches to psychotherapy before the use of more invasive technological methods. Embodied approaches use the entire body to enhance sensory, breath and movement awareness. Consequently, they can enhance overall self-awareness and contribute to improvement of mental health.

Clinical applications

Mindful movement, conscious dancing and meditating with the whole body activate the somatosensory cortex. Consequently, this helps us connect to our bodies. In turn, we can develop sensitivity and increase the capacity to feel pleasure. We are better able to regulate emotion. We are able to connect with our self and the world in a deep and meaningful way.

One of the amazing qualities of the somatosensory cortex is its ability to reorganize and enlarge with practice. This plasticity is critical. It means that through working directly with the body sensations and movement, we can modify it’s structure.

Another important aspect is its numerous connections with other areas of the brain. In other words, the somatosensory cortex has a power to affect other brain regions. Likewise, these in turn affect other regions, and so on. Significantly, the brain is heavily interconnected and no part acts in isolation.

The somatosensory cortex receives information from the entire body. It mediates exteroception (touch, pressure, temperature, pain, etc.), proprioception (postural and movement information) and interoception (sensations inside the body. This means that moving our body in a certain way can bring repressed memories to the surface, provoke emotional reactions, and create state shifts. It is one of the superpowers of mindfulness-based interventions and dance movement pscyhotherapy. It also explains why mindful movement can improve mental health.

The Movement In Mind approach

The mindful movement practices of Tai Chi and Qi Gong feature strongly in our wellness programme. Often, regular attendance and practice is enough to stay on top of things. When life become overwhelming, a more targeted approach may be appropriate. At these times, and for difficulties that require an intervention of more depth, clients can self refer for Movement Psychotherapy appointments.

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