Move Your Body, Calm Your Mind: 5 Practices That Help Ease Anxiety

“Get out of your head and get into your body. Think less and feel more.” ~Osho

Do you want to meditate but the idea of sitting with your thoughts for twenty minutes gives you anxiety? Or maybe meditation seems like one more task you have to add to your ever growing to-do list, so you take a pass?

As a working mother of three, I’m no stranger to daily stress and routine overwhelm. Life in the twenty-first century can be pretty hectic, especially for busy moms, and so many of us search for practical ways to minimize the stress and anxiety that are so common in our society.

Meditation seems like a perfect solution. It’s “easy,” accessible, and it’s good for our health, both mental and physical. It reduces stress and improves emotional regulation, concentration, and sleep. It helps us develop more kindness and compassion, for others and ourselves.

Sounds like a perfect cure. Except it’s hard. It can feel like a chore or a time thief. And it often triggers our fears and anxieties, especially if we have a history of trauma we’re still healing. 

So why not adjust the traditional meditation practice to reflect our modern lifestyle and constrictions? Why not mimic the practice of mindfulness while moving your body? Instead of sitting still, why not focus on gentle, repetitive movements that are enjoyable, all while reaping the benefits of mindfulness?

Believe me, you can have it both ways.

I am a Type A person. I am driven, full of energy and ambition. I’m competitive, over-scheduled, and always on the go. And I don’t have much patience, or time to kill. Sitting still for twenty minutes is often the last thing I want to do.

Another hurdle for me was anxiety, which often peaked when I opened up to my internal world of thoughts and feelings, as one does while sitting in meditation. I do better now, but in the first year of practice I often felt triggered and overwhelmed—precisely the opposite of what I was going for.

This is common for people with trauma or chronic pain. We tend to numb, distract, or ignore distressing sensations in order to make it through the day. Mindfulness requires the opposite of such disassociation.

When sitting in meditation, I was to focus on and “befriend” my body, along with the residue of trauma still lodged in it. Despite my best intentions I would become fidgety and agitated instead. Noticing my pain, both physical and emotional, seemed to increase it. I’d find myself trying to resist it, run from it, beat myself up for not being able to just “observe” my experience, and then criticize myself for beating myself up. It was a vicious cycle.

I understood that the goal was to learn to be with my experience, and it did get easier over time, but often it was too much to handle.

Needless to say, I’ve searched for alternative ways to meditate, ones that didn’t involve sitting still but were movement-based instead. And I found plenty.

The Meditative Benefits of Rhythmic Movement

Many of us have experienced some type of trauma or significant stress in the past. It’s part of a human experience. Even if we were lucky enough to avoid trauma, we live in a world of chronic stress and overwhelm. We often operate in “survival mode” and experience chronic muscle tension and fatigue. We feel anxious and maxed out too often.

Anxiety is often a symptom of a freeze response in fight-flight-freeze—the feeling of helplessness, our inability to change or escape a difficult situation, such as the daily stress that comes with our modern lifestyle. Movement is a great antidote to that freeze state. It gets us unstuck.

Stress gets stuck in our bodies. We carry this tension around with us and it affects us on a body-mind level. Movement is a great way to release that tension and get back to a relaxed state. Repetitive movement can also bring us into the state of mindfulness, giving our body a chance to press the reset button and kick in our natural healing and renewal processes.

Rhythmic movement, just like meditation, can be very therapeutic and healing. It helps integrate our body and mind, reset the nervous system, and rewire the brain for healing and wholeness. It’s not only good for your physical body but your mental health too.

Meditative movement activities are grounding as well. Feeling grounded is the exact opposite to perpetual worry.

Anxiety is about getting stuck in our internal world of thoughts and feelings. The repetitive movement, however, helps us get out of our head and reconnect with our body, grounding and centering us, connecting us back to the earth and to ourselves.

Grounding reduces inflammation and emotional stress, elevates our mood, and improves our immune responses. It brings us back to feeling centered and secure. And it’s exactly what we need in times of struggle and overwhelm.

5 Movement-Based Meditative Practices Perfect for Anxious People

There are a number of activities that have a meditative effect that don’t require you to sit still for twenty minutes. In fact, any movement that’s relaxing and repetitive can give you similar effect as meditation. The trick is to go slow and bring mindfulness to the practice. And if you enjoy doing it, you will find it easier to add to your daily routine, so it won’t feel like a chore.

Here are my favorites:

1. Walking

Walking is one of the easiest anxiety-reducing movement-based techniques. It can invoke mindfulness, clear your head, and release stress from the body. And if done in nature, you will feel more wakeful and alert and, at the same time, open, relaxed, and spacious.

2. Hatha yoga

The most rewarding for me personally, Hatha yoga is a gentle practice of body-mind integration. Yoga combines awareness of breathing with asana practice, enabling you to achieve the state of mindfulness and wholeness. It’s easy and accessible to everyone—you don’t have to join a studio, simply search YouTube for inspiration and lesson videos.

3. Gardening

Nothing connects me more to my surroundings than gardening. Great for anxiety and taming the monkey mind, gardening is a perfect activity to help you become mindful and engage with the world around you with all your senses. The calm of gardening can bring about the state of flow, as you become fully absorbed in the activity. Gardening is grounding; my garden is my personal Zen.

4. Swimming

Swimming is a gentle exercise that allows you to focus on deep breathing and the rhythm of your stroke, both lulling you into a state of deep relaxation. It comes with minimal distractions and is a great tension reliever. All you need is a body of water.

5. Dancing

Focused on expression on a bodily level, dancing allows you tap into your body’s own healing resources. It’s therapeutic. You connect with your body in elemental ways and allow it to express feelings often hard to convey in words—something especially beneficial for trauma victims and people suffering from anxiety or depression.

By being mindful while dancing, you also learn about yourself and your body and embrace your creativity and the comforting flow of pleasant physical sensations, fully re-engaging with the present moment. And that’s healing.

Whatever practice you choose, use the movement and sensations of your body to bring your awareness to the present moment. Draw your attention to your hands and feet, the sensations of touching the ground, and your arms swinging or shifting in motion.

Follow your breath as you inhale and exhale deeply and air travels in and out of your lungs. Let the rhythmic flow of your movements relax your mind.

Listen, notice, smell, and feel into your surrounding, using your senses to anchor yourself in the present moment.

Observe your experience, including your thoughts and feelings, without judgment. Notice when you get lost in thoughts, and bring yourself back to the movement, back to the now.

Try to add mindful movement to your daily routine, if possible. It’s a great way to reset your mind and remove stress out of your body, in a gentle and supportive way. Weave your favorite meditative activity into your daily life, without the distraction of technology. Make it your self-care habit.

And don’t forget to tap into mindful movement in times of struggle and overwhelm, to gently shift your body and mind out of stress and into relaxation. It’s a great alternative to sitting meditation when anxious energy is stuck in your body, ready to be released in an active way.

Mindfulness Takes Practice But You Are Worth It

I used to ruminate a lot on my walks. With practice, I’ve learned to let go of my onslaught of thoughts and bring myself back to the present moment. I now focus on the smell of freshly cut grass and the feel the breeze on my neck and sun on my face, and pay attention to each step and how it resonates through my body. As I walk, I realize the beauty around me and fill my heart with joy and gratitude. That uplifting energy fuels the rest of my day.

I do practice sitting meditation, and I have found it to be very useful. But my temperament begs me to move and be in nature, which is why I love walking and gardening.

Think of what is healing, relaxing, and brings you pleasure. Then bring awareness to your body as you develop a practice of bringing that joy into your every day, whether through movement, a creative pursuit, or play.

You are worth it!

About Joanna Ciolek

Joanna Ciolek is a self-taught artist, recovering self-critic, and the author of mindfulness-based prompt journals, The Art of Homecoming and The Art of Untangling. To learn mindfulness, reconnect with yourself, and begin your healing journey, join her Free Course at The Mindfulness Journal. Follow Joanna on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

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