Is Rocking Back and Forth a Sign of Mental Illness?


Mental illness is a health condition that involves changes in thinking, emotions, or behavior, or a combination of these, often associated …

Is Rocking Back and Forth a Sign of Mental Illness? Read More »

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Mental illness is a health condition that involves changes in thinking, emotions, or behavior, or a combination of these, often associated with problems in social, work, or family functioning. It is estimated that in each year, nearly one in five (19%) of U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness, and one in 24 has a mental health disorder.

Symptoms of mental illness fall under several categories.

  • Positive symptoms are behaviors a normal person would not display.
  • Negative symptoms are a lack of behaviors present in a normal person.
  • Disorganized symptoms affect a person’s thought process.

Positive symptoms are often the most noticeable signs of mental illness. Among these signs, rocking back and forth can indicate the presence of stress, trauma, or an underlying mental health disorder.

What’s the reason behind this pendulum-like motion?

The act of rocking back and forth or, body rocking, extends beyond the realm of mental illness. For instance, the gentle rocking of a cradle soothes newborns and babies. Additionally, as bone, joint, and muscle pain increase with age, we can find relief in the form of rocking chairs. In fact, certain animals, including elephants, sometimes move their bodies from side to side to alleviate pain or distress.

Though it may appear primitive, rocking triggers the brain the release of endorphins, the feel-good chemical. Exercise, aromas, certain foods, and even music can also release endorphins. David Givens, the author of the Nonverbal Dictionary, states that rocking, whether back and forth or side to side, “stimulates the vestibular senses,” referring to parts of the inner ear and brain that regulate balance and eye movements. These senses are closely aligned with the part of the brain that manages pain and stress.

Abnormal movement can be a symptom of various mental health disorders. There are many types of movement disorders, but stereotyped movements or stereotypes are most commonly seen in mental health disorders. Illnesses including schizophrenia, autism, OCD, addiction and other neurological disorders (frontal lobe lesions, Tourette’s syndrome, Parkinson’s disease) may present with unusual or stereotyped movements.

Stereotyped movements are repetitive and excessive and have no actual function, nor do they accomplish anything. These movements can include hand flapping, rocking or pacing. Other movements may consist of posturing, strange mannerisms or catatonia.

Changes in a neurotransmitter called dopamine cause most movement disorders. Excess of dopamine may cause stereotyped movements and decreased dopamine may lead to Parkinsonian type symptoms.


Schizophrenia is a brain disorder affecting roughly 1% of the American population. People with schizophrenia think, feel, and act in disorganized ways. Interference in the brain’s normal signaling patterns rewires how thoughts, senses, and emotions interact with one another, causing the perception of a very different reality. Individuals may sense non-existent things, develop delusions, and act in response to these false stimuli. When overwhelmed by these symptoms, a schizophrenic person may rock back and forth to achieve stasis.


Rocking is common among people with autism spectrum disorder. A person with a separate developmental disorder who displays habitual rocking can be diagnosed as autistic.

Three main theories explain the prevalence of rocking among the autistic population:

  1. Hyposensitivity: The person rocks back and forth or side to side to stimulate an otherwise under active nervous system.
  2. Hypersensitivity: The person engages in rocking to seek relief from sensory overload.
  3. Endorphins: The person rocks habitually to relieve extreme stress.

The presence of other illnesses and individual factors may also explain rocking as an autistic symptom. Rocking is one type of repetitive movement that can be seen in autism, but more than abnormal movement is required for a diagnosis. However, this may be a recognizable clue that something is wrong and should prompt a discussion with a doctor.

Other Causes of Rocking

While commonly associated with mental illness, rocking can indicate other anomalies or environmental factors, including:

  • Vision or hearing problems, or other sensory issues
  • Brain disease including seizures or brain infection
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Trauma
  • Chronic pain or even spinal deformities

 What is the appropriate treatment option?

Biological, behavioral, and environmental factors all contribute to rocking and other stereotypic movements. As such, diagnoses for an underlying disorder must be made on a case-by-case basis. There are several different options for the treatment of a mental health disorder such as schizophrenia and autism including medication, individualized therapy, counseling, and education.

Dr. Kelly Ownby, Medical Director at Smoky Mountain Lodge, says “When it comes to illness and your loved one, the whole process can be overwhelming. As a parent, trust your gut. If you think something is wrong or seems unusual, don’t be afraid to consult the opinion of your health care provider. Unfortunately, most mental health conditions are progressive which means the earlier the symptoms are recognized and the sooner the appropriate treatment is started, the better the prognosis.”

At Pasadena Villa, we create a comforting and therapeutic environment for those who have a mental illness. We believe in treating all residents with compassion, and our programs are designed in ways that preserve and protect their dignity. We do common activities that many families do. Our staff and residents learn and model appropriate social, communication and life skills, from daily personal hygiene habits and etiquette during mealtimes, to many fun and relaxing social and recreational activities.

Our mental health professionals work directly with residents using Pasadena Villa’s Social Integration Model. They observe them in actual social situations and incorporate these observations directly into the resident’s ongoing treatment plan.  This individual, real life personalized attention makes the Pasadena Villa treatment experience more appropriate and beneficial for each of our residents, especially when compared to any other available adult residential treatment mental health services.

As one of the very first programs in the country to base its treatment upon social integration, our program offers support through a unique mix of individualized therapy and group residential programs with a clear focus towards achieving more independent living.

The Villa Orlando and Smoky Mountain Lodge are adult intensive psychiatric residential treatment centers for clients with serious mental illnesses. The Pasadena Villa Outpatient Center-Raleigh, located in Cary, North Carolina, offers a variety of treatment options. Our therapeutic environment promotes well-being, recovery and personal motivation. Our levels of care provide other individualized therapy programs, step-down residential programs, and less intensive mental health services, such as Community Residential Homes, Supportive Housing, Day Treatment Programs and Life Skills training.

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If you’re ready to take the next step in the recovery process for you or your loved one, the compassionate team at Pasadena Villa is here to help. Give us a call at 877.845.5235 or complete our contact form.

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