When Cheng Xue was serving in the Canadian Armed Forces as a paratrooper and infantry officer, he experienced several traumatic events in quick succession: his best friend and ally took his own life; A soldier under his command was injured during an exercise with ammunition and the father of a close friend was kidnapped.
She felt like the world was crashing around her except at the gym, where she was training for competitive Olympic weightlifting.
“The only thing that made me safe was weightlifting, because it was the only place where I felt safe,” says Xu, 32, who is now a doctoral student in Toronto. Surrounded by the jitters of weight, he slowly discovered what he describes as the “healing properties of resistance training.”
Psychologists have long recognized exercise as beneficial to mental health, and over the past decade, research has also shown that it can be an invaluable tool in dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, despite being associated with violent outbursts of power, a growing number of people experiencing trauma are finding that lifting weights is a balm. For many people, the healing powers of the sport are due to the fact that when trauma has left them feeling helpless, powerless and weak, lifting weights helps them feel stronger not only physically, but psychologically as well. Meets.
“Lifting weights gave me a sense of agency,” Xu said. “It gave me a sense of control.” And, over time, that’s what helped her recover.
learn to go backwards
People with traumatic experiences have long turned to the weight room, fueled by the promise of increased physical strength. But in general these lifters have received little guidance on how to train in a way that supports their recovery and mental health. Lifters have also had to navigate an exercise culture that often glorifies a “no pain, no gain” approach that emphasizes performance and physical appearance rather than long-term wellness.
“There’s a lot of toxic masculinity in resistance training,” said James Whitworth, an exercise physiologist and health scientist at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine, as well as disabled combat veteran.
But as more people of all genders and abilities discover the benefits of resistance training, the weightlifting community is becoming more inclusive and expanding. Mental health groups have also begun to formalize weightlifting as a therapeutic tool and begin educating trainers on how to train for clients living with physical and psychological trauma. Also, the scientific community is beginning to study why heavy lifting helps some people recover from trauma.
“There’s something about lifting weights and working out with resistance” that builds resilience, “not only in the mind, but in the body as well,” said Chelsea Haverly, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Hope Ignited. , a Maryland-based organization dedicated to educating organizations and clinicians about trauma.
Last year, Haverly and Emily Young, a licensed clinical social worker and certified personal trainer, created a certification program for trauma-focused weightlifting trainers in an effort to bring the emotional benefits of weightlifting to more clients. As with weightlifting, Haverley commented, “It’s not just: ‘I can do tough things.’ Is my? Body can do difficult work. It is: ‘I haven’t felt strong and now I feel like a beast'”.
finding the right form of exercise
As more people with trauma come to terms with the benefits of weightlifting, Whitworth and other psychologists are working to better understand the psychological and neural mechanisms behind its potential as a therapeutic tool.
“Improving a person’s physical strength in such a way that they can see and feel can be especially powerful for individuals with PTSD,” Whitworth said, “in terms of their view of the world as well as about themselves.” By helping to redefine their perspective in
Although almost all forms of exercise are beneficial for people with psychological trauma, Whitworth said, they yield the greatest psychological benefits when they engage in moderate to high-intensity training, including weight lifting. High-intensity resistance training, in particular, has been shown to help improve sleep quality and anxiety, which can improve overall health and well-being.
However, people who have experienced a traumatic experience often avoid exercise altogether because of the physiological stress response—rapid pulse, heavy breathing, increased body temperature—that sometimes reminds them of their trauma. gives. For this reason, it is essential to help patients find the right type of exercise for them.
Yoga is often recommended for people with psychological trauma because it places great emphasis on breathing and mindfulness, but it is not for everyone. “There’s a whole bunch of people who are intimidated or reluctant for a variety of reasons,” said Maria Rooney, a licensed clinical social worker, yoga teacher, and weightlifter who works in Denver. She adds that some clients find that the relative silence and calmness of yoga can trigger anxiety.
the power of effort in increments
In her 2021 book “Lifting Heavy Things: Healing Trauma One Rape at a Time,” New York-based certified personal trainer and traumatic experience survivor Laura Khoudari explains that one reason she and others engage with weightlifting is because it provides regular breaks in intensity. which allows them to see how they feel, which in turn helps them not to feel overwhelmed.
“Relaxation gives your nervous system a chance to calm down,” explained Khoudari, who has also taken courses in body-oriented trauma therapy and has become a leading advocate of weightlifting as a form of therapy. “When we are living with a traumatic experience, our nervous system generally has less capacity for stress, and also less resilience,” he said. “So you can use resistance training to push yourself to the limits of the stress you’re capable of handling.” Over time, this widens our window for tolerance.
For this reason, Whitworth and others state that weightlifting can be a useful tool for people undergoing exposure therapy, during which therapists encourage patients to focus on their traumatic memories in brief, controlled increases in strength. Not contrary to the cyclical nature of training. Over time, this exposure leads to deactivation of memories as well as the associated physical stress.
“The idea is that they may feel very anxious at first,” Whitworth said. But “over time, patients begin to process the fact that these memories and sensations are not dangerous.”
He added that combining this therapy with high-intensity exercise, such as weight lifting, may be “particularly beneficial.”
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