Some People Are Using Strength Training to Heal Trauma

Some People Are Using Strength Training to Heal Trauma

THE NEW YORK TIMES – LIFE/STYLE – When Cheng Xu was serving in the Canadian Armed Forces as a paratrooper and infantry officer, he experienced a series of traumatic events in quick succession – his best friend and fellow officer took his own life, a soldier under his command was wounded during a live fire exercise and the father of a close friend was kidnapped.

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

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

Psychologists have long established that exercise is beneficial for the mental health and, over the past decade, research has also shown that it can be a valuable tool for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, despite weightlifting’s associations with violent bursts of muscle, a growing number of people who have suffered trauma are finding that working out 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 psychologically as well.

“The survey gave me a sense of agency,” Xu said. “It gave me a sense of control.” And over time, he said, those feelings led to his recovery.

Laura Khoudari in her backyard in South Hadley, Massachusetts. The personal trainer and trauma survivor said lifting weights is a way to increase her resilience to stress. Photograph: Vanessa Leroy/The New York Times

Learning to push back

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People who have suffered trauma have long gravitated to the weight room, drawn in part by the promise of greater physical strength. But these powerlifters have historically received little guidance on how to train in a way that helps their mental health and recovery. Lifters 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-disabled veteran.

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 the weight lifting as a therapeutic tool and educate coaches on how to coach 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, a licensed 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 licensed 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 wasn’t feeling strong and now I feel like a beast’”.

Experts say weightlifting can be a healthy way for many trauma survivors to feel powerful and capable again.
Experts say weightlifting can be a healthy way for many trauma survivors to feel powerful and capable again. Photograph: Vanessa Leroy/The New York Times

Finding the right form of exercise

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

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

While almost any type of exercise is beneficial for people with psychological trauma, Whitworth said, they reap the greatest psychological 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.

And yet, people who have suffered trauma often avoid exercise because of the physical stress response it can generate — racing 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 attention, but it’s not for everyone. “There’s a whole group of people who fear it or aren’t attracted to it for various reasons,” said Mariah Rooney, a licensed clinical social worker, yoga teacher and powerlifter from Denver. Some clients find that the relative calm and stillness of yoga can trigger anxiety, she said.

The power of striving forward

In your 2021 book Lifting Heavy Things: Healing Trauma One Rep at a Timecertified personal trainer and trauma survivor Laura Khoudari of New York, explained that one reason she and others connect to lifting is because it offers regular breaks in intensity — which allow them to gauge for themselves how they are feeling. , which in turn helps to avoid becoming overwhelmed.

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“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,” he 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 this reason, Whitworth and others have 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 short, controlled advances — not unlike the cyclical nature of strength training. Over time, this exposure can counteract the 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 “particularly beneficial.” / TRANSLATION LÍVIA BUELONI GONÇALVES

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