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

Rocking back and forth can be a warning sign or reaction to mental distress. People with mental health disorders may exhibit this behavior. The rocking motion feels soothing to them. This movement might seem excessive as if it has no real purpose.

However, rocking back and forth can help relieve stress and pain by stimulating the vestibular system. Typically, a sudden release of or drop in the feel-good chemical, dopamine triggers the motion. If someone wonders, “What does it mean when someone is rocking back and forth? continue reading.  

What Does Rocking Back and Forth Mean When It Comes to Mental Disorders?

Rocking back and forth can be a coping mechanism or an innate reaction to feelings of agitation, anxiety, restlessness, fear, and insomnia. However, if someone notices someone rocking back and forth, then they might need medical attention. This behavior could be a sign of a more serious mental health condition such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

Additionally, conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, frontal lobe lesions, Tourette’s syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, and addiction can cause these swaying back-and-forth movements. This behavior can occur in both children and adults.

As far as what causes this rocking back and forth, there is not a single answer. However, some experts believe it’s linked to the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical messenger in the brain that plays a role in mood, motivation, sleep, reward, and pleasure. The amount of dopamine released by the brain depends on how much stimulation we get from our environment.

If dopamine levels are high, a person will feel excited and happy. This surge of dopamine makes them feel good. However, to prevent feeling overwhelmed by this intense emotion, a person might start moving around in an attempt to release energy.

On the other hand, when dopamine levels are low—due to extreme terror or traumatic events—a person may feel depressed or agitated. In response, they may begin rocking back and forth.

What does rocking back and forth mean

What Mental Disorders Cause Rocking Back and Forth?

The rocking motion is often a sign of extreme distress. If it occurs during times of normal stress, it may suggest anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Rocking motion could also indicate bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or Tourette syndrome.

Conversely, this could be a symptom of a neurological condition called “pontine epilepsy.” In this case, the cause is not known but it is believed to involve a malfunctioning part of the brain stem.

Types of mental disorders that cause this behavior include:

Bipolar Disorder

A person who suffers from bipolar disorder often has periods of great happiness and bursts of energy. Then, they experience episodes of deep depression. During these depressive periods, people with bipolar disorder tend to become very agitated and restless. They sometimes will rock back and forth during times of distress.


People with schizophrenia have thoughts and feelings that seem out of touch with reality. This disorder greatly affects their ability to think, feel and behave normally. They often exhibit erratic behaviors including repetitive hand motions, pacing, and rocking back and forth.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD is displayed as unreasonable thoughts and fears that lead to compulsive behaviors. Someone with OCD may have a fear of germs. As a result, they compulsively need to wash their hands. OCD sufferers often rock back and forth while thinking about their obsessions.


Children with ADHD often fidget and rock back and forth while trying to focus on something. Being in a situation that suppresses movement or, in contrast, an overstimulating environment can lead to self-comforting movements.


People with major depression display symptoms of depression, most of the time, for at least two weeks. Symptoms vary but may include persistent sadness, appetite and weight changes, loss of interest or pleasure, and thoughts of death or suicide. Also, a change in sleeping habits can aggravate this condition.

Anxiety Disorders

People with anxiety disorders often have difficulty concentrating. They find themselves tense and unable to relax. As a result, they live in a constant mental state of fight or flight. Sometimes anxiety can lead to panic attacks where individuals may become short of breath, disoriented and overcome with extreme fear.


Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is a reaction to traumatic events such as war, natural disasters, rape, and physical or emotional abuse. People with PTSD often suffer from flashbacks and nightmares. There are also causes such as surgery, the sudden death of a loved one, a humiliating event, or a break up of a significant relationship that are overlooked, especially if there is deliberate cruelty. In addition, ongoing relentless stress such as living in a dangerous environment, bullying or life-threatening disorders can trigger PTSD.

How to Treat These Symptoms of Mental Disorders

The symptoms of mental disorders depend on the individual’s particular condition. However, people can use key indicators as a general guide.

The most common symptoms of mental health disorders include:

  • Lack of energy
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Excessive worrying
  • Obsessive thought patterns
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Severe mood swings
  • Delusions/hallucinations
  • Irritability
  • Social withdrawal
  • Changes in eating habits and sleeping patterns

It is important to seek mental health treatment if someone or a loved one experiences any of these symptoms. Furthermore, if someone is rocking back and forth, it could be a sign that they are attempting to cope with a mental health disorder. This is especially true if the rocking motion occurs frequently or at inappropriate times.

The Neuroscience Institute offers complete psychiatric evaluations. This allows medical professionals formally examine and, if appropriate, properly diagnose individuals.

Transform Your Life With Mental Health Treatment in South Florida

If you notice yourself or a loved one rocking back and forth, it may be a sign of an underlying mental disorder. The Neuroscience Institute in South Florida treats several mental health disorders including schizophrenia, mood disorders, substance use disorders, and personality disorders. We offer a wide range of outpatient programs and services to help people manage mental health symptoms and get on the path toward a healthy and fulfilling life. 

To learn more about what we provide or to receive a confidential mental health assessment, give us a call or visit our admissions page.

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