Using Movement to Reduce Trauma Responses

Numerous studies show that stress is on the rise among children. Some experts suggest that school closures and pandemic isolation are to blame, while others point out that childhood anxiety levels were already climbing before Covid-19 piled on. Generation Alpha has a lot on its plate and sometimes things spin out of control.

Mental health workers define trauma as a strong emotional response to a deeply distressing experience, event, or ongoing set of circumstances. It can arise because of changes in a family (via death, divorce, imprisonment, mental illness), natural disasters, chronic bullying or discrimination, abuse, or negative community events such as war, mass shootings, or a pandemic. But even if children’s fears are less intense, they still need support when they exhibit heightened stress and anxiety

While listening and talking are good support strategies, psychologists also recommend that adults use movement to help children cope and strengthen emotional regulation skills. Physical activities generate endorphins, brain chemicals that help relieve pain and improve mood. They also reduce the impulses to fight, flee, or freeze when overwhelmed. And they can increase children’s confidence in their own ability to control their bodies and emotions.

One potential activity is walking around a room, playground, or park. Adults can suggest that children walk laps as many times as they need to shift from rapid steps to a slower pace. Children might also use yoga or other stretching exercises to quiet their bodies and emotions. Alternatively (or in tandem with another activity), they might practice belly breathing: slow, deep breaths supported by their diaphragm.

Movements that intentionally draw on children’s known abilities also help. Group leaders can invite children to help pour juice for snack time, color pictures, play clapping games, clean off whiteboards, or any other activity that uses developed skills. It works because doing a simple physical task that children excel at frees up more cognitive resources for managing their emotions.

Light resistance strength exercises can work as well. Give children a small rubber ball to squeeze or invite your group to help you rearrange the furniture in your meeting space. Take a timeout from other activities to do some squats, sit with your backs against the wall for 1-2 minutes, or engage in a brief yoga flow exercise when kids seem edgy.

Balancing exercises are another effective movement to calm stress. Standing like a flamingo (with one leg lifted) activates a nervous system reflex that supports emotional regulation. Crawling has a similar effect. Turn these activities into ‘personal best’ competitions if children feel awkward about doing them. Invite them to try lifting their airborne foot a little bit higher or holding the flamingo pose a few seconds longer each time. Suggest that they crawl with their eyes closed, complete more laps across the room, or navigate an obstacle course on their hands and knees.

Finally, recruit children as partners in deciding which physical movements will be your group’s stress-reduction activities. This gives kids a sense of agency and shows respect for their ideas, both of which build self-confidence and support greater self-control.



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