Alyssa Ages encountered a pregnancy loss in her mid-30s. Despite her high activity levels in Strongman competitions, CrossFit, and Ironman events, the miscarriage left her feeling vulnerable and shattered, causing a loss of trust in her body. Upon returning to the gym, her aim was not only to enhance her physical strength but also to tap into the emotional healing potential of resistance training.
According to studies, while weight lifting is not a replacement for therapy, the tangible challenge of lifting heavy weights can foster a stronger connection between the mind and body. This was the experience for Ages, who shares her journey in Secrets of Giants: A Journey to Uncover The True Meaning of Strength.
Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are intricate to address, and what works for one individual may not work for another. While therapy can be effective, for some individuals, recovery can also take place within the confines of a gym.
How can resistance training aid in trauma recovery?
Mariah Rooney, a trauma specialist, co-established Trauma Informed Weight Lifting in 2018 after hearing numerous accounts of individuals turning to resistance training as a method to cope with mental health challenges. However, many of them had negative experiences in fitness settings. The organization now explores the healing potential of resistance training and educates 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 recovery, with lessons that extend beyond the gym into everyday life. Here are some of the most significant effects of resistance training on trauma.
The obstacles can cultivate self-assurance and agency
Instead of concentrating solely on the physical aspect, Rooney clarifies that trauma often causes a disconnection from oneself, including a loss of safety, belonging, and connection to the world. Recent research has indicated that resistance training can help rebuild this severed connection with the body by fostering self-assurance. Rooney explains that resistance training 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-assurance as they realize that they are capable of accomplishing difficult tasks and moving their body in ways they didn’t think possible. This process also aids in reclaiming autonomy, a crucial aspect when trauma often strips it away.
The physical sensations can ground people in their bodies
Rooney underscores 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 resistance training can serve as a tool to re-establish regulation in those who experience dissociation. The sensory experience of resistance training, 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 enhance emotional resilience
Interval training, a common feature of resistance training 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 engaging in resistance training for trauma recovery
When seeking a gym for trauma recovery through resistance training, Mariah Rooney advises looking for staff members who have a foundational understanding of trauma and are inclusive in their approach. Coaches should also be inquisitive about their clients’ behavior rather than adopting a rigid, 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.
Moreover, engaging with a supportive community can be particularly beneficial in the recovery process. The right environment can help individuals find their strength, both physically and emotionally, and connect with people who comprehend their journey.