The power of joyful movement for anxiety

Kat Nicholls
By Kat Nicholls,
updated on Jan 20, 2023

The power of joyful movement for anxiety

Taking a multi-pronged approach to anxiety can be powerful. Here we explore how one of those prongs, exercise, can help us manage anxiety

If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, you’ll probably know that it can trigger some intense physical reactions. There’s a certain energy about anxiety, to me it feels like I’m a shaken up can of soda, fizzing with fear.

Now, there are lots of techniques that can help anxiety. I’ve had cognitive behavioural therapy in the past, and I find both meditation and journaling helpful. When I am particularly fizzy however, there’s only one thing that really helps. Moving my body.

I’ll either put on some music and dance in my bedroom (not following any steps, just moving in a way that feels fun), go to a Pilates class or grab my towel and head to my local pool. There’s something oddly soothing about swimming; the gentle hum of fellow swimmers in the background, the comforting scent of chlorine and the way I can sync my breathing with my strokes. It makes the entire process a joy.

Intuitive movement advocate and personal trainer Tally Rye discusses the power of joyful movement on Happiful’s podcast I am. I have.

When I’m done with these activities, it’s like the anxiety, or fizz, has been released and my body can settle again. The idea that exercise is good for our mental health isn’t a new one, but its true power continues to be explored.

A new study being carried out by academics from University College London will see NHS mental health trusts using ‘social prescribing’ to encourage 600 young people on waiting lists to take part in dance, music, sport and exercise. The study will look at how this supports mental wellbeing and, if successful, could see more activities being made available for those on waiting lists.

While it’s been acknowledged that these activities are no substitute for other forms of support like talking therapies, it can help people cope with challenges, especially if waiting for treatment. So what is it about exercise, and joyful movement especially, that’s so helpful for anxiety?

It puts you in the here and now

This is what I most love about the activities I do. Whether spinning with arms outstretched at home, engaging my core in a Pilates move or gliding through the water at the pool, I am present. I am in my body, not my head. Sure, the odd anxious thought might pop into my head from time to time, but because I’m physically moving I find it easier to move my attention back to that.

Anxiety often pushes our attention to the past (ruminating about something we’ve done or said) or the future (worrying about what might happen), so anything that can bring us back to the present moment can help.  

It reduces stress

Stress is a physical thing and it can manifest in our body, leading to tight muscles. Often, when we release the physical tension, it can help to release some of the mental tension too. If I could, I would have weekly massages for this, but for now exercise fits the bill. Moving my body in certain ways and doing lots of stretching helps my muscles stay loose and flexible, which somehow makes my mind feel the same.

It releases endorphins

This is the scientific bit. When we exercise, our bodies release endorphins – the ‘feel good’ hormone. This is what’s reducing our mental stress and making us feel good. Personally, I find what really enhances this effect is doing something I truly enjoy.

I’ve tried lots of things over the years, from hitting the gym before work to running, but those activities always felt like a chore. While endorphins were surely being released, it all fell a bit flat. Now I’ve found activities that I genuinely enjoy, I notice those endorphins so much more. I’m also far more likely to keep up with exercise when I know I’m going to enjoy it.

It boosts confidence

This is a side-effect of exercise I hadn’t given much thought to until recently, but it’s an important one. When we exercise and start to see progress, we can feel a boost of confidence in our abilities. We see that we can accomplish things, and that feels pretty great.

Just this week I went for a walk, doing a route I hadn’t done in months. The reason I’d been avoiding the route was because there’s a hill involved and I always struggled with it. But this time, there was no struggle. After keeping up with swimming and Pilates for several months, my body has gotten stronger. Being able to see this progress feels incredible (so here’s a reminder to celebrate your movement wins).

It’s fun!

We should never underestimate the power of fun. It can feel hard to come by, especially when we’re struggling with our mental health, but finding an activity you enjoy can provide an oh-so important glimmer of hope.

Try adding fun elements to your exercise routine with your favourite music or by exercising with others. The social element can offer accountability while helping you feel more socially connected.

If you’re struggling with anxiety, support is available. For free advice, you can call Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774 between 9.30am – 5.30pm, Monday – Friday (except bank holidays) and if you’re looking to work with a therapist, you can visit Counselling Directory.

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