There’s a reason exercise is so often “prescribed” for those processing and recovering from a trauma. The body is an inter-connected machine, and healing trauma also involves caring for the entire body. When healing from a traumatic experience, don’t forget to eat healthy while also working on strengthening your body. The two go hand-in-hand. However, for many in this position, the idea of “working out” is the last thing they want to do. Trauma can make us anxious and very fatigued—not a very good combination for a session at the gym.
There’s a good reason those who have survived a trauma avoid exercising. First and foremost, exercise can make the heart race. This feels counterintuitive for those suffering from many forms of trauma, such as PTSD. This type of arousal can give off danger cues in the brain. It’s a symptom that’s similar to anxiety. Add in depression, common with trauma, and you have low energy, a tendency to isolate yourself, and little motivation. Those who have suffered trauma also have a tendency towards unhealthy behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse. These are addictions that need to be addressed in tandem with trauma recovery. They are, of course, not good playmates with exercise but more importantly have an entirely different host of issues.
Exercise is important for more reasons than the well-known physical effects. It also has an enormous impact on mental health and a proven ability to reduce depression and anxiety. Exercise releases dopamine in the brain, the feel-good chemical that ultimately soothes and gives those who have lived through a trauma a healthy tool for management. However, it will take getting over that bump of avoiding exercise or feeling like there’s no motivation to make it happen.
A number of studies have considered the combination of exercise and PTSD. One revealed that in a three-month program, regular exercise led to a “significant decrease” in symptoms related to PTSD including depression. It also led to better sleep quality. Other trials have found that working out “significantly reduced” depressive symptoms related to PTSD.
Before beginning an exercise program, it’s important to check in with your health team that’s overseeing your trauma recovery. This should include a GP as well as any mental health advisors. Certain activities might not be appropriate for all patients depending on the trauma and goals. However, with so many options for exercise, there will certainly be a wide variety of options available. It’s also a good idea to work with a personal trainer who specializes in trauma recovery. Every exercise regimen should include a variety of activities to focus on cardio, strength, balance, flexibility, and mental health. Oftentimes, yoga is a powerful addition to any program, but should always be led by a teacher who specializes in trauma-informed training.
Starting new, healthy habits is a great step in trauma recovery. Not only does it provide you with physical strength, but also mental and emotional. Being equipped with this kind of toolkit is one of the best gifts you can give yourself.