Strength training can help deal with trauma and take care of mental health

Strength training can help deal with trauma and take care of mental health

When Cheng Xu was serving in the Canadian Armed Forces as a paratrooper and infantry officer, he experienced a series of traumatic events in rapid succession – his best friend and fellow officer took his own life, a soldier under his command was wounded during a shooting exercise. and the father of a close friend was kidnapped.

He felt as if the world was crumbling around him everywhere except the gym, where he trained in competitive Olympic weightlifting.

“The only thing that anchored me was weightlifting, because that was the only place I felt safe,” said Xu, 32, now a doctoral student in Toronto. Surrounded by the metallic clatter of dumbbells, he slowly discovered what he described as “the healing properties of strength training”.

Psychologists have long concluded that exercise is beneficial for mental health, and over the past decade, research has also shown that it can be a valuable tool in dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Today, despite weightlifting’s associations with violent bursts of force, an increasing number of people who have suffered trauma are finding that “pulling iron” is a balm.

For many, the healing powers of sport boil down to the fact that where trauma has left them helpless, powerless and weak, lifting helps them feel strong – not just physically but also psychologically.

“Lifting weight gave me a sense of management,” Xu said. “It gave me a sense of control.” And over time those feelings led to his recovery, he said.

Learning to literally push back

People who have suffered trauma have long gravitated toward the weight room, drawn in part by the promise of greater physical strength.

But these powerlifters have traditionally been given little guidance on how to train in a way that supports their mental health and recovery.

Weightlifters have also had to navigate a fitness culture that often glorifies a “no pain, no gain” approach, with a focus on performance and superficial appearances over long-term well-being.

“There’s a lot of toxic masculinity in strength training,” said James Whitworth, an exercise physiologist and health science expert at the National PTSD Center and an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and a combat veteran with a disability.

But as more people of all genders and abilities discover the benefits of strength training, the weightlifting community is becoming more inclusive and expansive.

Mental health groups have also begun to formalize weightlifting as a therapeutic tool and to educate coaches to work with clients living with physical and psychological trauma. At the same time, the scientific community is starting to study why, exactly, some people with trauma find that lifting heavy things helps them recover.

“There’s something about weightlifting and resistance work” that builds resilience, said Chelsea Haverly, clinical social worker and founder of Hope Ignited, a Maryland-based organization dedicated to educating organizations and clinicians about trauma. “Not only in the brain, but also in the body.

Last year, Haverly and Emily Young, a clinical social worker and certified personal trainer, created a trauma-based weightlifting certification program for coaches in an effort to bring its mental health benefits to more clients.

With the survey, Haverly said, “It’s not just ‘I can do hard things.’ It’s ‘My body can do hard things.’ It’s ‘I didn’t feel strong and now I feel like a beast.’

Finding the right form of exercise

As more people with trauma claim the benefits of weightlifting, Whitworth and other psychologists are working to better understand the psychological and neurological mechanisms behind its potential as a therapeutic tool.

“Improving a person’s physical strength in a way that they can see and feel can be particularly powerful for individuals with PTSD,” Whitworth said, “helping to reshape their worldview as well as their idea of ​​themselves.”

While almost any type of exercise is beneficial for people with psychological trauma, Whitworth said, they reap the greatest benefits when they engage in moderate to high-intensity training, which includes weight lifting. High-intensity resistance training, specifically, has been shown to help improve sleep quality and anxiety, which can improve overall health and well-being.

However, people who have suffered trauma often avoid exercise entirely because of the physical stress response it can generate — rapid pulse, heavy breathing, elevated body temperature — which can remind them of their trauma. For this reason, it is essential to help patients find the type of exercise that is right for them.

Yoga is often recommended for people with trauma because of its focus on breathing and mindfulness, but it’s not for everyone.

“There’s a whole group of people who are afraid of it or aren’t attracted to it for various reasons,” said Mariah Rooney, a clinical social worker, yoga teacher and powerlifter in Denver. Some clients find that the relative calm and stillness of yoga can trigger anxiety, she said.

The power of incremental effort

In her 2021 book, “Lifting Heavy Things: Healing Trauma One Rep at a Time,” certified personal trainer and trauma survivor Laura Khoudari of New York , explained that one of the reasons she and others connect to weightlifting is because it offers regular intensity breaks — which allow them to self-analyze and check how they’re feeling, which in turn helps them avoid overload.

“Pauses give your nervous system a chance to calm down,” said Khoudari, who also completed a course in body trauma therapy and has become a leading advocate of weightlifting as a form of healing.

“When we’re dealing with trauma, our nervous system usually has less capacity for stress and also less resilience,” she continued. “And so you can use strength training to get to the limit of how much stress you can handle.” Over time, this can expand our tolerance window.

For that reason, Whitworth and others said that weightlifting can be a useful tool for people undergoing exposure therapy, during which therapists encourage patients to focus on their traumatic memories for incremental, short, controlled periods — not unlike the cyclical nature of strength training. Over time, this exposure can neutralize memories as well as related physical stress.

“The idea is that they can get really anxious at first,” Whitworth said. But “over time, patients begin to process the fact that these memories and feelings are not dangerous.”

Combining this therapy with high-intensity exercise like weight lifting, he said, can be “especially beneficial.”

Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves

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