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What Does It Mean When Someone Is Rocking Back and Forth?

Interpreting body language is far from an exact science. Someone who stands with their arms folded across their chest may be feeling defensive or obstinate – or they may just be cold. Pinching the bridge of their nose could be a sign of frustration or disbelief – or it might mean they have a headache. Some types of movements may also suggest emotional turmoil, but these could be easily misinterpreted as well. For example, why do people rock back and forth? 

Why Do People Rock Back and Forth?

There is no single answer to the question, why do people rock back and forth? But there are a variety of possible reasons why someone might engage in this behavior.

Often, people who rock back and forth are doing so as a means of comforting themselves. Parents or other caregivers often rock babies in cradles or on rocking chairs in order to soothe them, but the inherent benefits of this motion aren’t limited to infancy. 

When a person is deep in thought, bored, concerned about a problem, or struggling with an emotional conflict, gentle rocking can be a source of serenity. Studies suggest that rocking can prompt the release of endorphins, which are chemicals in the central nervous system that have been associated with minimizing pain and elevating mood.

Rocking can also be a sign of a neurological condition or a movement disorder. Ataxia, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and Tourette’s syndrome are a few of the many medical concerns that could cause a person to frequently rock back and forth.

Also, as we will discuss in greater detail in the next section, some instances of rocking back and forth may be symptomatic of a mental illness.

What Disorders Can Cause a Person to Rock Back and Forth?

In some cases, the answer to the question, why do people rock back and forth, is that they have developed a mental health disorder. The following are examples of the many conditions that have been linked with this behavior.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

For some people who have ASD, rocking back and forth is a stim (which is short for self-stimulation). Other common forms of stimming include flicking one’s fingers, waving one’s hands, and twirling. While stimming can appear to be an odd or random action to those who aren’t familiar with ASD, these behaviors can have great importance to individuals who have this disorder.

For people with ASD who are easily overstimulated by noises or lights, stimming can be a way of blocking these distractions. Rocking back and forth and other forms of stimming can also help people with ASD deal with pain or manage their emotions.

Schizophrenia and Schizoaffective Disorder

Schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder are two mental illnesses that can cause people to experience the following types of psychotic symptoms: hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thoughts, grossly disorganized or catatonic behavior, and negative symptoms.

Rocking back and forth can be an example of grossly disorganized or catatonic behavior. This repetitive motion can also be a self-soothing reaction in response to hallucinations or other stressful experiences. 

Schizotypal Personality Disorder (SPD)

As defined in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), schizotypal personality disorder is characterized by eccentric behaviors, cognitive or perceptual distortions, and a reduced capacity for close interpersonal relationships.

According to an April 2019 study in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin, rocking back and forth (or postural sway) is as common among people who have SPD as it is among those who have schizophrenia. This study confirmed that this swaying motion is a symptom of SPD, not a reaction to any medications that are commonly prescribed to treat people who have this condition.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a complex mental health concern that can involve mania and hypomania (which are periods of elevated mood and energy, restlessness, and inflated self-confidence) as well as depression (episodes of pervasive sadness, low energy, diminished motivation, and frequent thoughts of death). 

The restlessness and psychomotor agitation that are characteristic of manic or hypomanic episodes can sometimes manifest as rocking back and forth, tapping one’s feet, or being unable to remain seated for very long. During a depressive episode, rocking back and forth may be a soothing behavior or coping mechanism.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Recurrent, intrusive traumatic memories can be sources of considerable psychological distress for people who are living with untreated PTSD or other effects of trauma. This emotional anguish can also be triggered by people, objects, situations, or circumstances that remind the individual of their past trauma.

Rocking back and forth can be an involuntary attempt to self-soothe when confronted with reminders of traumatic experiences. During treatment, individuals who have been living with PTSD can learn healthier and more effective strategies for minimizing the pain that they associate with these memories.

Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health disorders. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that about 19% of U.S. adults had symptoms of an anxiety disorder and 8.3% had at least one major depressive disorder in the past year.

Both of these disorders can cause deep emotional suffering as well as difficulty coping with the stresses and pressures of everyday life. As with PTSD, people who have not yet received effective professional care for an anxiety disorder or a depressive disorder may engage in rocking behaviors as a subconscious means of experiencing relief.  

Find Mental Health Treatment in Atlanta

If your life has been disrupted by anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or any other mental health concern, please know that you are not alone. Peachtree Wellness Solutions is a leading provider of comprehensive mental health services for adults. 

Our mental health treatment center in Atlanta, Georgia, offers customized care at the inpatient, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient levels. At each of these levels, you can work with a team of dedicated professionals within a safe and highly supportive environment. We understand that everyone who develops a mental illness is impacted in a unique way, and we are committed to developing the personalized solutions that will meet the full scope of your specific needs.

To learn more or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Admissions page or call us today.