Fundamentals of Trauma Recovery, Part 6

November 23, 2018 - 4 minutes read

Movement for Trauma Survivors

It might sound redundant to talk about exercise in a mental health article.  Exercise is considered a basic element of mental and emotional health; the endorphins released during exercise are a natural feel-good chemical that boost mood and overall well-being.  In the context of trauma recovery, however, I take the topic from another angle. Here, I will elaborate on the benefits of movement (as opposed to “exercise”) for the trauma survivor, as well as give you some tools to determine what kind of movement is right for you.

Why Get Moving?

Firstly, the most ill-affected survivors of trauma are usually those who froze at the time of the incident.  The freeze was unequivocally an adaptive response at the time, but the residual freeze response is out of place once the trauma is over. Getting your body moving is a kinetic message to your brain (specifically, your hypothalamus) that you can move now, that the traumatic event is in the past.  As you get active, the statement is clear: that freeze was for then — I am here now, actively defrosting by getting moving.

Secondly, and no less importantly, is the issue of muscle tone.  Muscle tone, and in turn the stability of your skeletal system, can greatly impact your overall sense of ability, competency, and strength — physically, mentally, emotionally.  It is known, for example, that building muscle strength in small or physically weak children can boost their effectiveness socially, as well as in self-esteem. People with poor posture who work to correct it by building their back, shoulder, or abdominal muscles, report greater competency and esteem in many areas.  Anyone with low muscle tone can experience lifts in mood, motivation, interest, and efficacy when they get moving, strengthening their muscle tone and skeletal frame.

Further, it is not merely a matter of being physically stronger (though that feels good, too!).  As a trauma survivor, you are likely living with constant or near-constant bombardment by physiological reactivity, emotional dysregulation, dissociation and/or flashbacks.  By increasing muscle tone, you will literally build your container to bear it all. Additionally, you will have a sturdier container –your body– to bear the destabilization that often comes with engaging in the process of recovery.  When your container is fortified, recovery will be easier.

How to Move?

Finding movement that fits for you is essential.  Some people like aerobic activities — sports, intensive strength training, swimming, hiking, and so many others.  However, some trauma survivors notice that aerobic activity (specifically, the quickening heart rate) is triggering; it is a somatic marker for the trauma, when their heart raced back then.  If this is the case for you, do not push yourself into activities that are dysregulating.  Instead, consider gentler options; yoga, stretching, light walks, low intensity strength training. If getting out of the house is too difficult right now, begin with what works.  Find gentle ways to incorporate movement into your day, building your musculature in increments that make sense for your circumstances. The “getting moving” that works for someone else does not have to work for you. You will do yourself great good by using your mindful gauge to determine your path, your moves.

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