Alyssa Ages had an experience with pregnancy loss in her mid-30s. She was already highly active, participating in Strongman competitions, CrossFit, and Ironman events. Despite her physical strength, the miscarriage left her feeling vulnerable and shattered, causing her to lose trust in her body. Upon returning to the gym, her goal was not just to increase her physical strength, but to tap into the emotional healing possibilities of strength training.
According to research, while weight lifting is not a substitute for therapy, the tangible challenge of lifting heavy weights can promote a stronger connection between the mind and body. This was the case for Ages, who shares her experience in Secrets of Giants: A Journey to Uncover The True Meaning of Strength.
Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are complex to address, and what works for one person may not work for another. While therapy can be effective, for some individuals, healing can also occur within the space of a gym.
How can lifting help heal trauma?
Mariah Rooney, a trauma specialist, co-founded Trauma Informed Weight Lifting in 2018 after hearing numerous accounts of individuals turning to weight lifting as a way to cope with mental health challenges. However, many of them had negative experiences in fitness settings. The organization now researches the healing potential of weight lifting and trains coaches to better support the needs of individuals with trauma. Through this work, Rooney and her colleagues have observed several ways in which lifting can lead to healing, with lessons that extend beyond the gym into everyday life. Here are some of the most significant effects of weight lifting on trauma.
The challenges can build self-trust and agency
Rather than focusing solely on the physical aspect, Rooney explains that trauma often causes a disconnection from oneself, including a loss of safety, belonging, and connection to the world. Recent research has shown that weight lifting can help rebuild this severed connection with the body by fostering self-trust. Rooney explains that weightlifting poses constant questions, such as “Can I do this? Can I lift that? Can I do this with good form and without getting injured?” These questions ultimately help individuals build self-trust as they learn that they are capable of accomplishing difficult tasks and moving their body in ways they didn’t think possible. This process also helps in reclaiming autonomy, a crucial aspect when trauma often strips it away.
The physical sensations can bring people back into their bodies
Rooney highlights that trauma can lead to dissociation, where individuals disconnect from their emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations as a response to being overwhelmed. She suggests that weightlifting can serve as a tool to re-establish regulation in those who experience dissociation. The sensory experience of weightlifting, such as feeling the barbell on one’s back or the texture of the barbell, can facilitate a reconnection to the body and the physical experience of muscles and joints, thereby re-engaging the mind-body connection.
The intervals can expand emotional resilience
Interval training, a common feature of weight lifting involving short bursts of exercise followed by rest, can widen an individual’s “window of tolerance,” which is the capacity to effectively manage stressors. Trauma tends to narrow this window of tolerance, making it easier to become dysregulated. Interval training can help individuals build resilience and confidence to endure challenging situations for short periods, thus expanding their emotional resilience.
What to look for if you’re lifting for trauma healing
When seeking a gym for trauma healing through lifting, Mariah Rooney advises looking for staff members who have a foundational understanding of trauma and are inclusive in their approach. Coaches should also be curious about their clients’ behavior rather than adopting a strict, one-size-fits-all approach. It’s important, especially for those working through trauma, to progress at their own pace and ensure that their coach prioritizes their safety and needs.
Additionally, engaging with a supportive community can be particularly beneficial in the healing process. The right environment can help individuals find their strength, both physically and emotionally, and connect with people who understand their journey.