We tend to think that our emotions reside in our brain. And they do, but they also can begin with our bodies. In fact, by the time you realize that you’re anxious, your body has already known for a while—your shoulders are tight, your jaw is clenched, your stomach might be churning. By the same token, you can make yourself feel more calm and peaceful, just by focusing on your body. Try it right now. Wherever you are, pay attention to your body for the next few seconds. Take a deep breath, then slowly let it out. As you do, relax your shoulders. Do you feel that? Do you feel some of the tension in your body begin to dissipate? Do it one more time. Deep breath, relaxed shoulders. Do you see how you can feel more calm and serene just by adjusting what your body’s doing?
The reason is that our emotions are intensely connected to the sensations of the body. Because the nervous system runs throughout the body and is part of the brain, what our body does significantly impacts our brain, including the way we experience our emotions.
This is great news, because it’s just one more example of how we can intentionally influence, to a fairly significant extent, how we experience the world. We can’t always choose how we feel, but in important ways, we really can influence our own emotions. You might have heard about experiments where smiling for a bit actually made people feel happier, and frowning made people feel down.
One simple way to shift our emotional states, especially when we’re feeling upset, is by moving our bodies. Because physical movement can alter the chemistry in the brain, it can change the way we feel.
This can be a powerful tool for parents to have at their disposal. For example, if you have a young child who’s having a hard time handling her behavior or emotions, have her move her body. Grab a big ball and begin a game of catch. Or turn on music and dance together, quickly shifting things for both of you when frustrations are running high. You can also have her do a few yoga-type stretches. Or play animal charades: ask her to show you how an alligator snaps its jaws, or how a bear would climb a tree. This can be a surprisingly quick (and fun) way to move moods in better directions.
It works for older kids, too. I told my nine-year-old’s Little League coach about this principle, and he ended up having the boys jump up and down in the dugout when they got discouraged after giving up a few runs during the championship. Their shoulders were slumped and they had given up, but energetic 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!)