How Rocking Can Help You Heal

Research shows the health benefits from the gentle motion of rocking are undeniable.

Photo: Elena Kloppenburg / Unsplash

I think my parents glimpsed heaven when they got a Swyngomatic — the thin, metal windup baby swing that was all the rage in 1960s and ’70s. “We took that thing everywhere,” says my mom with an unworldly sigh. “It probably saved our marriage,” laughs my Dad. They are not alone. Parents throughout time and across culture have known instinctively what research has lately confirmed: the soothing, sleep-inducing power of the repetitive rocking motion.

But it’s not just babies that benefit from rocking. A recent study in Current Biology suggests that our brains — young or adult — are designed to respond to gentle oscillation. Researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) recordings to investigate the brain responses of 18 healthy adults who spent three nights in a sleep lab. The first night acclimated them to the sleep environment; the second was spent rocking in a bed; and the third they slept stationary.

The findings were compelling: Even in people who typically sleep well, rocking helped them to fall asleep sooner. It also helped them achieve non-REM sleep, which means improved quality of sleep, and they had fewer disturbances, which allowed for longer and deeper sleep.

Being rocked may help you fall asleep sooner and sleep longer and deeper.

Beyond sleeping

All this is great news for the 50 to 70 million Americans who struggle to get some quality shut-eye. And yet the gentle sway of rocking has also been proven to help with other significant health issues.

Chronic pain

In the 1950s, a young John F. Kennedy was prescribed a rocking chair, styled the “Carolina Rocker,” by his physician to help relieve his back pain. So effective did JFK find the exercise that in the following decade he acquired 14 of these rockers, even installing one on Air Force One and at Camp David.

Rocking increases circulation by sending more oxygen to our joints, which reduces inflammation and reduces pain. (And all you need is five to ten minutes to feel the effect.) Rocking also engages core abdominal and thigh muscles, which is key for suffers with lower back pain. The rhythmic motion further engages the parasympathetic nervous system, the “calming” branch of our autonomic nervous system. Like psychological distress, pain activates the sympathetic nervous system, the “survival” branch, which increases functions like muscle tension, heart rate, and breathing. When we’re tense and tight from trying to contain our pain, the gentle movement from rocking releases a cascade of endorphins that shifts us into a calming, more relaxing state and lessens the hurtful effect.

One study at the University of North Carolina of women suffering with Fibromyalgia found that rocking 10 minutes a day, three times a week, for 16 weeks significantly increased a sense of peace and relief, and it helped them to manage their pain.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Among the many challenges of memory loss can be anxiety and depression. Research at the University of Rochester found that mid-stage dementia may be most likely to produce acute episodes of agitation and emotional distress, likely because at this phase people typically still have some awareness of their loss of cognition but are not able to compensate for it. Rocking helps to alleviate both emotionally distressing conditions. The calming autonomic aspect of rocking can help to quell anxiety (and PTSD). The gentle movement can likewise pull a person out of hypoarousal that comes with depression.

A related study at the University of Rochester analyzed 25 nursing home residents diagnosed as having dementia, either due to Alzheimer’s or other causes. The residents rocked in a gliding platform-style rocking chair over six weeks for anywhere from half an hour to two and a half hours each day for five days a week. Here too, the findings were compelling. Nearly half of residents saw a reduction of up to one-third in anxiety, tension, and depression. Several patients also requested less pain medication. Really active rockers improved their balance, and most residents experienced greater happiness and psychological and emotional well-being.

The same study in Current Biology that showed the benefits of rocking for sleep also showed a positive influence on memory. Participants were asked to memorize 46 random word pairs on nights that they both rocked and didn’t. They were then given the first word and asked to recall the second the following morning. After a night of rocking, their recall increased threefold. While the study was not done with memory-challenged individuals, some researchers have theorized that rocking could be specifically helpful for this reason for those who are.

Rocking can help to alleviate anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Recovering From Surgery

Anyone who has been felled by a major surgery knows well how challenging the aftermath can be. Rocking chair therapy (or what some are now calling “Kinetic Therapy”) can be a huge relief — quite literally — by dramatically speeding post-operative healing.

Take knee replacement surgery — one of the most dreaded procedures due to a mammoth amount of pain and swelling that inevitably occurs in its wake. Orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists say early motion is essential to recovery. Rocking gently in a chair or even on a porch swing positions you naturally to bend and dangle your knee and, with slow motion, can greatly help you improve your knee flexion. For instance, one study with elderly women found that rocking can significantly help isometric knee extension.

Rocking is also helpful for new moms who have had Cesarean sections. A 1960 study in Physical Therapy Review found that women who had C-sections recovered quicker if they rocked for one hour a day. Another study found that C-section moms who rock had less gas pains, increased mobility, and left the hospital sooner than non-rocking moms. Women recovering from hysterectomy can also benefit.

Speaking of gas. Research at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center found that patients who had undergone surgery for abdominal cancer passed gas 16.8 hours earlier than those who didn’t. Passing gas, in this case, is a sign of recovery. Rocking has also been shown to be helpful with digestion, particularly constipation. Studies show that the back and forth of rocking helps to release intestinal gas buildup and abdominal distention.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

As with autism, some individuals with ADHD naturally want to rock. Research shows that in addition to being calming, the motion of a rocking chair can accommodate the instinct to keep moving, while also corralling attention. Studies show that reading, listening, and concentration can be greatly improved with rocking in a chair.

Vertigo and Parkinson’s Disease

What these two conditions have in common, in terms of rocking, is the inner ear, specifically the vestibular nerves in the ears that are responsible for maintaining balance. Rocking stimulates the vestibular nerves. For sufferers of vertigo, or those felled by bouts of dizziness, you may want to invest in a rocker. A study by Baylor College of Medicine found that rocking chair therapy can greatly reduce symptoms in individuals who can’t be treated for vertigo through surgery. For those with Parkinson’s, rocking can help to improve balance, and thereby prevent falls. It can also help to make the symptoms of the disease more stable.

And more…

  • Substance abuse: One study with veterans found that a rocking chair may increase the ability to self-regulate mood and substance cravings and prevent relapse.
  • Labor pain: Women who use a rocking chair during labor experience less pain, according to one French study.
  • Arthritis and autoimmune disease: See chronic pain above.

How to make rocking a part of your life

  • Invest in something that moves: A rocking chair, hammock, see list above. Then use it regularly. Make rocking a part of your routine as you would brushing your teeth or working out. Rather than flopping on the couch, put your butt in your chosen glider and do something you enjoy — read a book, listen to music, talk to an important someone. And if you must doomscroll, do it from there. At least the distress will be assuaged by the gentle movement.
  • Rock yourself to sleep in five easy steps. First, get into bed. Lie on your back. Take a few relaxing breaths, then extend your legs out straight. Second, focus on your feet. Sway them side to side, as if they’re windshield wipers. This will cause your whole body to rock into a soothing state. Keep it up for 10 to 15 seconds. Third, gently move your hips side to side. No need to samba, just shift them almost effortlessly. Keep going for another 10 to 15 seconds. Fourth, work your way up to your shoulders and head, rocking gently in the same way. Fifth, sway with your whole body — again, not too much, just enough to feel yourself begin to let go.
  • Try visualization (either alone or combined with rocking yourself to sleep). If you don’t have a chair or other mechanism to do the rocking for you, try conjuring up a restful rocking scene. When you’re in bed (or somewhere where you can relax) imagine yourself swaying in a hammock in a beautiful place or drifting lazily on a raft atop gentle waves. Use your senses to hear what’s around you: chirping birds, crashing water, a warm breeze caressing your face, the salty air or fragrant flowers filling your nostrils. Add music that fits the mood, if you like.
  • Get your spouse, partner, or trusted other involved. This can be especially good for people who have meaningful anxiety, PTSD, moral injury, or other forms of trauma. First, start by having the person receiving the rocking lie on their right side (assuming they are comfortable this way). The right side kicks the rest cycle of the right hemisphere of the brain into gear; this will accelerate sleep. Second, place a support pillow under the person’s neck. Some people also like to have a “hug pillow” at their belly. Third, the person doing the rocking will sit behind them. This person will then place their left palm (fingers toward the sky) at the sacrum or bottom of the recipient’s spine. Their right hand will go at the base of the recipient’s skull and above their shoulders; it will naturally cup the area. Note: keep the touch very light; no need to push. Fourth, with the recipient’s eyes closed, gently and slowly begin rocking them with your left hand (the one over the sacrum) for five to seven minutes, or whatever is comfortable for the person. It can be helpful to encourage slow, diaphragmatic breathing.

Rocking is a universal behavior. We cradle babies, doze in a hammock, shift in a chair, glide on a porch swing, undulate in a boat. There is almost something a priori about rocking; we do it without knowing we should. Well, now science has caught up to human instinct, because the list of health benefits, both mental and physical, is staggering. Whether you need to heal or just destress, rocking is definitely worth the time and investment.

Award-winning writer, therapist, clinical ethicist, and researcher specializing in moral injury. I talk about the stuff many won’t.

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