Medicating with Movement

Neurons Concept

Medicating with Movement

Jenn Pilotti


I am having one of those weeks, a week where a lot of the people around me are upset, or anxious, or depressed. A week where there is a sense of heaviness encompassing the people I interact with regularly, which makes me feel like I am being held down under a thick, heavy blanket and I can’t quite find my way out.


Now realistically, what’s probably happening is I’m not busy enough, though a normal person looking at my schedule would argue I was plenty busy. But the way I cope with life is through movement, and part of that movement is maintaining a full schedule, one that involves feeling like I am a productive member of society because I am either working with people or learning something. So when I seeing fewer clients than normal because of travel and/or I am not learning something challenging, I feel antsy. The walls start to cave in and I begin moving more, using the act of moving as a way to settle myself down.


This combination of being around people in various emotional states and me not being scheduled to the nth degree means I reflect on what I am doing with my life. Does it have purpose? Does it have meaning? Am I any good at it? Maybe I should quit and go live in isolation on a beach somewhere. (Except that wouldn’t work because I would miss the people. The conundrum of being a person whose sole purpose is to teach others.)


In between the reflection, I move, using the movement to answer the questions, or to quiet my brain down enough that the questions fall away. I run. I walk. I lift weights. I stretch. I dance. I flip upside down. I find random, cool looking low flow acrobatics movements on Instagram and I try and mimic them. I become intensely interested in how my foot interacts with the floor and how many ways I can turn the skin under the belly button. 


The moving helps me feel better temporarily as I feel connected to myself more completely, even if the connection is fleeting.


When I was sixteen, I wasn’t depressed, exactly, but I was, for all intents and purposes, experiencing suicidal ideation. As I said to my sister recently when she was venting about things, everyone’s family is dysfunctional. Ours was just a special flavor of dysfunctional. The lack of communication, erratic behavior, and complete lack of cohesiveness was disorienting in a way that my sixteen year old self wasn’t handling.


And so I began contemplating overdosing on pills, imagining how I would do it, when I would do it, and what the aftermath would look like. I was worried about failing, because no one around me had the coping mechanisms to deal with what failure meant. Success was, as far as I could tell, the only option.


But because we didn’t have a lot of pills lying around and the ones we did have wouldn’t pack enough punch (because I researched it. Obviously), and I didn’t like the alternatives of slitting my wrists (too messy) or some sort of hanging apparatus (I was never good at knots), after three months I abandoned the idea.


This coincided with me joining a gym and getting an after school job. I began working out before school and working after school. Since I was paying for the gym, I wasn’t imposing a financial burden and because working meant I was making money, these were activities that were allowed, giving me an alternative, a glimpse of a different way that life could be.


During this period, I also began to notice my response to things and how different events made me feel. I realized I didn’t actually like having days off from either work or the gym. I liked the act of working and I liked the act of moving. They kept me balanced, and that balance made everything else tolerable. 


I offer this as a reminder that sometimes moving is a way to regulate a person, arguably a healthier way to self-regulate than drugs or alcohol. It’s a way to sense the physical self, to remind the mind that there is a body connected to it and that that body can experience sensation in a variety of ways, changing the experience of the mind. 


If you are someone who uses moving as a way to self-regulate, ask yourself if you are using it to numb sensation or change sensation? And if you aren’t sure, see if you are actually connected to the experience when you are performing your activity of choice. If you are using it as a way to mentally check out, ask yourself how this activity is serving you?


And if you are using it as a way to change sensation, give yourself permission to experience the sensation before as fully as the sensation after. Those of us who self-regulate through moving have a tendency to ignore the before, focusing instead on the high of the after.


But ignoring the low can make the inevitable drop that occurs when you stop moving more challenging. So rather than ignore it, recognize it. Acknowledge it. Except that it, too, is part of your lived experience.


And if you live with someone who self-regulates by constantly being in motion, understand that it’s a natural thrum within them, an aspect to their being that brings equanimity just like binging on Netflix shows might create homeostasis for someone else.


We are all searching for a way to navigate this crazy world. Taking a moment to observe how you deal with life can be a valuable tool for recognizing how (and if) it’s actually providing the desired effect. Notice. Listen. Acknowledge accordingly.


Observation also serves as a reminder that the highs during (and after) a movement session are temporary. So, too, are the lows. Your relationship with each is what makes life challenging and beautiful.


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