Personal Stories

Moving Towards Mental Health

by Daniel Epstein

As the program director for a mental health and substance abuse center and a practicing psychotherapist, I work with some incredible people experiencing a diverse range of symptoms and diagnoses. Yet, regardless of diagnosis, there is one thing I prescribe for all of us:


Grandma Jo always told me about sleep, diet, exercise and being kind to people. Knowing her, she didn’t read science journals or peer-reviewed studies about the significance these actions can have on our lives and overall health. She just knew some good old-fashioned wisdom—wisdom that science has since validated. So, I want to focus on one of those simple, yet overlooked old-fashioned bits of wisdom. A bit of wisdom that, coincidentally, is an important aspect of mental health recovery: movement.

I don’t know the last time I walked my dog without seeing someone jogging or riding a bike (even in winter!) or waited at my local coffee shop without someone in yoga gear behind or in front of me on line. This is all exercise: fantastic, healthy, beneficial, highly recommended in my treatment plans and certainly a form of movement. However, movement doesn’t need to involve vigorous exercise.

Our brains are wired to reward us for actions that help us survive, like a migrating herd of elephants leaving a trail of dust behind them, a kitten pouncing on a toy mouse or a quick stroll around the block with your best friend (mine is a 26-pound, super scruffy schnauzer-poodle rescue). Even Ellen DeGeneres, in her white sneakers, bopping down the aisle of her studio audience gets a dopamine reward for that movement.

I’ll admit: I dance. A lot.

I do it because I understand the neurological benefits and enjoy the feeling. Dopamine is more than the “good feeling” chemical. It’s also helping regulate my mood, sleep, cognition and behavior.

As a therapist, I always like to assign challenges to my clients. Here’s one for you: The next time you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, sad, etc., put on an upbeat song, bring your whole attention to the music and lyrics and move (dance, walk, etc.). That’s it.

If it seems simple, that’s because it is. When we’re having a tough time, we tend to sit and dwell. So, let’s do the opposite. Let’s move and distract.

And to be clear, I’m not suggesting “distracting” as in “avoiding.” But we often confuse dwelling with problem-solving, and dwelling is actually just focusing on feeling bad, rather than a proactively solving a problem. When my clients report dwelling, I often ask, “So, you’ve sat on the couch and dwelled for a few weeks now, and nothing has changed. How about we try something different?”

Bonus points: Move with others. Connectedness is another neuro-beneficial phenomenon. Not only will you get the natural joys from connecting to another person and moving around, you’ll also benefit from taking your mind off your problems. Often that’s the solution itself.


Daniel Epstein, LPC, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist and Program Director at The Berman Center a Mental Health and Substance Abuse treatment center in Atlanta, GA.


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