Is Rocking Back and Forth a Sign of Mental Illness?

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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. According to the American Psychiatric Association; it’s estimated that each year, nearly one in five U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness, and one in 24 has a mental health disorder.

Symptoms of mental illness include:

  • Positive symptoms, which are behaviors that someone without a mental illness wouldn’t display.
  • Negative symptoms, which are a lack of behaviors present in someone without a mental illness.
  • Disorganized symptoms, which 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 an anxiety disorder, trauma, or another 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.

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“Going to Smoky Mountain Lodge was equally the most challenging and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. The location was absolutely beautiful, I rediscovered how much I love being outside, and the food was incredible. The tech staff gave so much support, care, and friendship. The recreational therapists are fantastic and taught me how to have fun again. If you need a safe space for healing and growing, I highly recommend Smoky Mountain Lodge.” – Grateful Pasadena Villa Smoky Mountain Lodge Alumnus

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, like rocking back and forth, can be a symptom of various mental health disorders. There are many types of movement disorders, but stereotyped movements are most seen in mental health disorders. Illnesses including schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (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 that affects approximately 1% of the American population according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). 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 with autism spectrum disorder. Three main theories explain the prevalence of rocking among individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

  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 symptom of autism spectrum disorder. 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 behavior should prompt a discussion with a mental health professional.

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
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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 struggling with mental health disorders. 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 clients using our unique Social Integration Model. They observe them in actual social situations and incorporate these observations directly into each client’s ongoing treatment plan.  This individualized attention during real-life scenarios makes the Pasadena Villa treatment experience beneficial for each of our clients, 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 on social integration, we offer support through a unique mix of individualized therapy and group residential programs with a clear focus on helping our clients live independently.

Our customized and compassionate residential psychiatric treatment is provided in therapeutic environments that promote well-being, recovery, and personal motivation. There are multiple levels of care available at each of our Pasadena Villa psychiatric treatment centers, each providing the highest levels of care and support and the closest amount of supervision needed.

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Our treatment centers accept private payment, out-of-network benefits, and in-network benefits.

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