My Mind News considers new research that shows that symptoms of anxiety and depression can be treated with physical movement alongside more traditional methods.
A new way of thinking
Traditional treatments for mental illness often focus on thoughts, feelings, and emotions. We do not usually consider gross motor functioning (movements involving large muscles of the body) when thinking about treatment for such conditions. Moreover, the topics of posture and movement are rarely mentioned in the same discussion as anxiety and depression.
What comes to mind when we think about the posture or movements of a person suffering from depression might be a slumped posture, slow gait, and, crucially, a smaller motion range – particularly of the neck and shoulders.
However, as reported in Psychology Today, researchers now say we should pay greater attention to the embodied view of mental illness. After all, emotions are bound and influenced by the body’s movements. The study paper, which discussed the link between mental illness and motor movements and posture, was first published in the Journal of Affective Disorders and can be read here.
Focusing on psychomotor changes in anxiety and depression
Various mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, alcohol withdrawal, and opioid intoxication, can all be associated with motor changes. Specifically, this can be with psychomotor retardation or psychomotor agitation.
Psychomotor retardation refers to the slowing of bodily activities and speech. Psychomotor agitation, in contrast, refers to excessive, repetitive, and nonproductive movements, such as pacing or hand-wringing.
The research study had two objectives –
- To determine if there are gross motor differences between healthy individuals and those with anxiety or depression; and
- To ascertain how changing motor displays affects the emotions and behaviors of people with anxiety or depression.
A total of 87 investigations were included in the study. Of these, 82 investigations (involving 58, 923 participants) compared motor differences in anxiety/depression with healthy individuals, whereas five studies evaluated motor changes in clinical samples.
Further, of the 82 investigations, 60 assessed depression and 22 anxiety, so most of the findings discussed below are particularly relevant to depression.
Key motor differences between healthy versus patients with anxiety/depression
The analysis of the research results showed the presence of “robust group differences of a medium magnitude between clinical and healthy groups. These results were not moderated by sample type, age, comorbidity, medication use, or psychological disorder.
In terms of data on specific motor outcomes, differences in gait parameters were noted, with “depressive individuals showing reduced step/stride length/width, steps to turning/stepping reaction time, and more overall abnormal movement (i.e., sway, posture) compared to healthy individuals.”
Meanwhile, analyses on specific postural outcomes showed that anxious and depressed individuals tend to have “increased head flexion [head bent forward] and smaller joint range of motion of knees, hips, wrists, shoulders, and elbows.”
Of course, more research is necessary to determine whether these motor changes are risk factors for anxiety or depression, maintenance factors for patients who already have anxiety or depression, or only symptoms of these conditions.
The effects of changing motor displays in anxiety and depression
The study’s second aim was to evaluate the impact of changing motor displays on patients’ emotions and behaviors.
The results showed that movement manipulations could alter emotional states in individuals with depression. These findings have critical therapeutic applications.
As the researchers noted,
“Changing posture and movement (e.g., from slumped into an upright posture; from slow/downward into swift/upward movement) could potentially be applied and integrated into treatment for depression, particularly when it is useful to counteract lack of motivation and energy or to facilitate approach behavior.”
The research conclusions were that people with anxiety and especially depression when compared to healthy individuals, have less postural control. Those with depression also have abnormal posture and sway, slower gait, decreased step or stride length or width, reduced number of steps to turn around, and reduced stepping reaction time.
Manipulating the motor system may positively influence the emotional state of people with anxiety and depression, helping them feel more energized and motivated.
According to the researchers, some examples include encouraging upright posture instead of slumping and encouraging swift and upward instead of slow and downward movements. A 2017 study concluded that an upright posture could improve mood and reduce fatigue in people with depressive symptoms.
In terms of the application of the findings, here are some suggestions for those receiving treatment for anxiety or depression –
- Pay attention to how you sit, stand, walk, or move your body while working.
- How is your posture/movement associated with your mood?
- Ask your therapist/counselor if specific postural and movement changes might improve your anxiety and depressive symptoms.
My Mind News would love to hear whether the study findings resonate with you or if you recognize its conclusions. Tell us more in the comments.