The Movement of Depression & Anxiety

Life is movement, energy in motion. Movement generates power. In nature, we see this in obvious and subtle ways. The dramatic power of ocean waves suddenly crashing against shoreline rocks. Succulents quietly forming intricate spiral patterns of geometrical movement as they slowly grow.

Trees encompass many patterns of energy. Branches reach out into space in unique curves, spirals, and bends. A squirrel runs and jumps along the branches like a circus performer. Water moves up and down inside the solid trunk of the tree. Light entering the leaves turns them red in the fall. As a seed sprouts, eventually to become a tree, we can see energy and movement playing out over time.

In a depressed state, it seems like life energy is frozen and one’s motivation for movement has stopped. Thus it gets harder to have access to a sense of power. A lack of movement reinforces a further overall sense of powerlessness and blockage in life energy.

In an anxious state there is excessive energetic activation and acceleration but the energy has no clear direction. So it cannot reach a state of completion. It is like big waves not knowing where to flow or a volcano not being able to release the lava. Without any direction, the intensity keeps building. It is like the waves get bigger without landing on a shore. In the nervous system this results in a state of overwhelm and panic.

Peter Levine in his book Waking the Tiger talks about the trauma vortex, which also has another side called the healing vortex. Two interrelated vortices, they exist side by side. He states that in the face of trauma, the healing vortex, which is the antidote, is always next to the trauma vortex, on the other side.

The other side of being depressed or anxious specifically points to the presence of a healing vortex that potentially can be found in the middle of crises. When effectively evoked, this healing vortex will speed up the steps to recovery in therapy.

Peter Levine metaphorically refers to a river to describe how a healing vortex is intrinsically formed as a counter-vortex that balances the force of what he refers to as the trauma vortex.

When there is a rupture in the boundaries of a river, water overflows, swirling and spilling over the riverbank. This is the trauma vortex, a result of experiences that overwhelm and rupture what our psyche’s boundaries can hold.

Levine points out that a counter-vortex is simultaneously created, swirling water in the opposite direction back into the river. Recognizing and utilizing this healing vortex moves us back into a coherent experience of the stream of life.

Seen through this lens, when we are in an anxious or depressed state, it would be useful to redirect our attention for a moment towards the other side, where the healing vortex could be found.

In an anxious state it might be possible to redirect attention to a sense of being held by the floor, so that I can feel that I am being supported by gravity. Or to notice how I am being held by the chair, how it is holding and supporting the weight of my body.

From that place, I can begin to feel a little of the healing vortex and find more resourcefulness to tolerate anxiety.

The movement within my nervous system and body may then start to have a more coherent direction. As I follow this direction I may begin to experience physical movements that further release activation which may also have emotional significance.

Continuing to stay with the energetic flow in my body, I may reach the other shore and recover a sense of deeper connectedness which may manifest itself as calmness.

Or I may chose to directly explore what is driving the anxious state in me. I may become curious about the subtle but powerful dynamics underneath the anxiety.

In a depressed state, where motivation for motion seems to be blocked, I could first acknowledge what might still be moving all by itself. Even in a depressed state, my blood still moves through my veins, my heart still is beating, my lungs are expanding and contracting with each breath. Cells are taking in nourishment, lymph nodes are busy filtering, my kidneys, liver, and stomach are in cycles of movement.

The inner intelligence of our being is engaged in constant flow of movement and rest. Paying attention to this, I can voluntarily introduce the remembering of movement to my body followed by some rest.

That way I can begin tuning into micro-movements that are available to me. Through further somatic and emotional inquiry I can slowly, in my own timing, begin a process of unwinding some stuck patterns both in my physiology and my psyche.

If there is enough movement and I have access to an alive stillness within me, I won’t even notice what is going on in the depth of my bodily functioning. But if something is off balance, then I will notice how the natural flow is disrupted. Often pain is an indicator that we are out of balance and that we need to give some attention and support to what is going on inside.

When one’s nervous system is not experiencing threat, one is in a calm, safe state. Moshe Feldenkreis wrote that we must be helped to get to a state where we have a good nervous system, but do not need to know that we have a good nervous system. The not knowing refers to a state of balance and flow. Rather than numbness. There is nothing excessive or out of balance. It is as if the nervous system is not visible, just operating as it should in the background.

Seen through this lens, depression and anxiety can be viewed as signals asking for your conscious attention. These are signals that our system has been overwhelmed, that we have excess or stuck energy, that we need to return to a state of better balance and a sense of flow. But first we need to honor the life saving functions of tension and stuckness. Movement and body work can be excellent portals of nonverbal inquiry and guidance.

Through conscious inquiry, movement, stillness, and by giving attention to impulses in our body, a stuck state of overwhelm or freeze can slowly dissolve. You can regain access to inner states that reflect you to you in which you can reconnect with your life energy in a way that there is grounding, flow, direction, and empowerment.