Trauma, PTSD, Exercise and Healing
The aftermath of traumatic experience can leave an individual paralyzed by a wide range of emotional, somatic, and psychological symptoms. These trauma symptoms can manifest in any of the following (or combination) of ways:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mood swings
- Overwhelming fear
- Feelings of depression or hopelessness
- Somatic (physical) issues – often unexplained
- Feeling disconnected or numb
Trauma disrupts the body’s natural equilibrium, putting the body into a fight, flight, or freeze response. These responses are the body’s natural way of coping with extreme stress, fear, or terror. When a person accesses their fight, flight or freeze response, the brain and body are in a state of hyperarousal. Hyperarousal is the defining aspect of what makes an experience traumatic. A person that has lived through a traumatic event or prolonged trauma (such a child abuse) is in a constant state of hyperarousal, always on alert for danger or threat. This constant state of hyperarousal leads to compromised immune functions, unexplained somatic conditions and persistent mental health concerns.
An understanding of chronic hyperarousal is important in the conceptualization and treatment approach to healing from trauma. By understanding brain processes and how they affect different parts of the mind and body, therapeutic techniques, movement, and exercise can be incorporated to help survivors fully process, understand and integrate traumatic experiences into their life narrative.
The first and most important method of reducing traumatic symptoms is through the safety and comfort of the therapeutic relationship. There are many other practices (such as meditation, yoga, mindfulness) that will only benefit the therapeutic process. In addition, physical movement and regular exercise are other ways to benefit trauma treatment and approach healing from a truly holistic perspective.
Many recent studies are looking at the mediating and reducing effects of exercise on hyperarousal. Through exercise, a person experiences the release of natural chemicals that decrease the release of stress related hormones, thereby decreasing hyperarousal symptoms. Physical exercise is a mechanism for building resistance to the negative effects of psychosocial stressors, a way for vulnerable populations build tolerance to potential threats of traumatic experiences. A study conducted on rats suggests that regular aerobic exercise helps a human body adjust and rebalance itself against increased levels of arousal and can decrease the lasting, damaging effects of traumatic experience. Physical exercise directly combats the hyperarousal component of trauma and PTSD. It is encouraging to see that much of the current research points to the body’s innate capacity to rebalance and heal itself through its own complex processes through psychotherapy, body awareness, movement, and exercise.
Lyndsi Worthington, Intake Coordinator, received her Bachelors degree from Binghamton University in upstate New York and is currently a graduate student at California Lutheran University working towards a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology. Lyndsi works as a Marriage and Family Therapist Trainee and has a special interest in working with trauma survivors, adolescents, couples and families. Lyndsi believes in a holistic approach to healing, incorporating mind, body, and spiritual integration. In her free time, Lyndsi loves the beach, photography, all outdoor activities and spending time with family.