[Disclaimer: If physical injuries were incurred during a traumatic event, please consult with your doctor and physical therapist before physical activities.]
Exercise has many benefits for everyone of all ages, and its potential to help trauma victims heal is enormous.
However, exercising after a traumatic event is usually incredibly difficult, even if the trauma is mainly emotional.
Normal body function is disrupted in the first few days after a traumatic event.
There’s a disconnect between the mind and the body where we can feel as though we’re experiencing life outside ourselves.
Recovery from emotional trauma, healing emotional pain, is, in essence, coming back into the body. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to facilitate this process.
However, it’s important to remember that all trauma, even emotional trauma, is worn in the body.
Posture is affected, communication between the muscles and the central nervous system is disrupted, and sensory processing distorts in unpredictable ways. This is why trauma can induce involuntary reactions like limb-shaking, stuttering, and blanking out or disassociation. Sometimes, we’re not aware of the effect that trauma has on our body because it happens in such subtle ways. This is why those who have endured any kind of trauma are advised to take extra time and precautions when returning to exercise.
While this is a recommendation from our own experience in traumatic recovery, we advise waiting a few weeks after a traumatic event before returning to exercise to avoid injury. This applies even to the most experienced at training. And of course, don’t worry if it takes you longer. There’s no rule for when someone should recover from trauma.
But once you’re able to resume physical activity, exercise is highly recommended because it’s one of the best ways to regain strength and feel whole again, both of which are key to healing emotional pain.
Ease Back into Exercise
Following trauma, basic care routines (i.e. eating, drinking, and sleeping) should be the main priority, and it’s only when these can be maintained and the body is functioning as close to normal as possible, that exercise is recommended.
When starting, we recommended starting with a lighter amount of exercise than you’d usually perform. This is because if someone resumes their regular exercise routine and they’re wearing trauma in their bodies, it can feel more difficult physically.
Inadvertently, a feeling of weakness is likely to come at a moment when the trauma victim is trying to get strong. It’s an unnecessary setback. Starting light lets the brain catch up, and makes it easier to ease back into a normal workout routine.
For cardio exercises like walking, running or swimming, go slowly and only plan on a third of the normal duration. Pick a route or training facility that is familiar and comforting. Taking yourself through known territory will help you readjust to feeling safe in your body again.
For strength training, we recommend stretching, yoga, or recovery workouts at first, followed by lighter weight loads and fewer reps. Try exercising muscles that you may not normally work out on a regular basis. Mixing up strength training forces new connections between your muscles and your central nervous system, which makes you feel stronger in ways you didn’t expect, and this can actually be a joyous experience for trauma victims.
Exercising Through Emotions
Following a traumatic event, there’s a temptation to use physical activity and forced exertion to vent bottled-up anger and frustration. We don’t recommend this. Not that being angry is bad – it’s perfectly acceptable to be angry after a traumatic event. But using exercise to vent anger can cause erratic movements, hyperextension of muscles and joints, or other types of strain that can lead to injury. You must keep a cool head while you sweat to maintain proper form.
For some, depending on a combination of their personality and the type of trauma suffered, using exercise to vent anger can also unintentionally reinforce patterns of self-punishment. If this starts to happen, switch to a low-impact activity like stationary cycling, then set and work toward reasonable goals every single day – this will reinforce more positive patterns that help build strength.
Don’t worry if it’s difficult to exercise through overwhelming emotions. Sadness makes it particularly difficult to perform physical tasks because it makes everything feel heavier and pointless.
It’s a perfectly normal feeling, and it’s okay to forgo exercise for as long as needed. And don’t feel shame about it – when we’re flooded with so much emotion that we have difficulty performing physical tasks, it isn’t defeat. It’s our brain’s way of trying to preserve the energy it needs to heal.
The only feeling that we recommend forcing yourself to ‘exercise through’ is anxiety. Anxiety’s chief characteristic is excess energy, and exercise gives it a healthy focus.
If exercising with anxiety, focus on your breathing above everything else. Make sure you’re breathing in and out properly during periods of exercise, and allow yourself plenty of time after something strenuous for your breathing to return to normal. Drawing in breaths from the stomach will help you stay relaxed.
If you need help staying focused, try counting your reps, sets, or strokes or singing songs to yourself during physical activity. Whichever works best.
Above all else, it’s important for trauma victims to remember that exercise isn’t a competition or a vanity exercise but a tool for self-care and a way to build strength and help the body connect with a positive feedback loop and growth cycle.
Creative therapies have been shown to heal emotional pain, not just in trauma survivors but in everyone. Stars of HOPE is a non-profit organization that uses art therapy and community resources to help survivors of mass tragedies hold onto hope during difficult times.
Visit our website to find out more.