Move It or Lose It: Moving the Body to Avoid Losing the Mind
Research has shown that bodily movement directly affects brain chemistry. So when one of your children has lost touch with his upstairs brain, a powerful way to help him regain balance is to have him move his body. Here’s a story a mother told us about her ten-year-old son and a time he regained control by being physically active.
Two days after Liam started fifth grade, he felt completely overwhelmed by the amount of homework his teacher had assigned. (I agreed with him, by the way. It was a lot.) He was complaining about it, but he eventually went to his room to work on it.
When I went to check on his progress, I found him literally curled up in a fetal position under his bean bag chair in his room. I encouraged him to come out, to sit at his desk and keep working on his studies. He kept whining, saying he couldn’t do it: “It’s just too much!” I kept offering to help him, and he kept refusing my help.
Then all of a sudden, he jumped out from under the bean bag chair, ran downstairs, ran out the front door, and kept running. He ran several blocks through the neighborhood before coming home.
When we had him safely back in the house, and he had calmed down and had a snack, I was able to talk with him and ask why he had taken off like that. He said he didn’t really know. He said, “The only thing I can think of is that I felt like it would make me feel better if I ran as fast as I could for as long as I could. And it did.” And I have to admit—he did seem a lot more calm, and ready to have me help him with his homework.
Even though Liam didn’t know it, when he left the house and ran, he was practicing integration. His downstairs brain had bullied his upstairs brain into submission, leaving him feeling overwhelmed and helpless. He had floated way over near the chaos bank of the river. His mother’s attempts to help bring in his upstairs brain were unsuccessful, but when Liam brought his body into the conversation, something changed in his brain. After a few minutes of exercise, he was able to calm his amygdala and give control back to his upstairs brain.
Studies support Liam and his spontaneous strategy. Research shows that when we change our physical state—through movement or relaxation, for example—we can change our emotional state. Try smiling for a minute—it can make you feel happier; quick, shallow breaths accompany anxiety, and if you take a slow, deep breath, you’ll likely feel calmer. (You can try these little exercises with your child to teach her how her body affects how she feels.)
The body is full of information that it sends to the brain. In fact, a lot of the emotion we feel actually begins in the body. Our churning stomach and tense shoulders send physical messages of anxiety to the brain before we even consciously realize that we’re nervous. The flow of energy and information from the body up into our brain stem, into our limbic region, and then up into the cortex, changes our bodily states, our emotional states, and our thoughts.
What happened for Liam, then, was that the movement of his body helped bring his whole self into a state of integration, so his upstairs brain, his downstairs brain, and his body could all once again do their jobs in a way that was effective and healthy. When he felt overwhelmed, the flow of energy and information became blocked, resulting in dis-integration. Vigorously moving his body released some of his angry energy and tension, allowing him to relax. So after his run, his body sent “calmer” information to his upstairs brain, meaning that his emotional balance returned and the different parts of his brain and body began to function again in an integrated way.
The next time your children need help calming down or regaining control, look for ways to get them moving. For young kids, experiment with what might be called creative, loving trickery, as shown on this page.
The fun of this game, coupled with the physical activity, can completely change your toddler’s mind-set and make the whole morning much more enjoyable for both of you.
This technique works for older kids, also. A Little League coach we know heard about the “move it or lose it” principle and ended up having his players jump up and down in the dugout when they got discouraged after giving up a few early runs during the championship. The boys’ movement brought a shift of excitement and new energy into their bodies and brains, and they eventually came back and won the game. (Chalk up another victory for neuroscience!)
At times, too, you can simply explain the concept: I know you’re mad you didn’t get to go on the sleepover with your sister. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? Let’s go ride our bikes and talk about it. Sometimes just moving your body can help your brain feel like things are going to be OK. However you do it, the point is to help your child regain some sort of balance and control by moving their body, which can remove blockages and pave the way for integration to return.