Recovering from trauma of abuse often means learning to be more in touch with the body. Victims of abuse have a tendency to dissociate. In order to cope with the trauma, the mind is removed from the present physical condition. The body becomes “not me.”
Practicing self-compassion honors the feelings that surround the abuse. It can be an uncomfortable experience grappling with shame, guilt, resentment, hostility, or desire for retaliation. Unfortunately, we might turn to food or addictive substances to self-soothe. A healthier, long-term way to enhance your mood is exercise. But for the possibly dissociative trauma survivor one has to walk a fine line. When does pushing ourselves athletically become a form of self-harm?
I know the feeling that says, “I absolutely have to exercise, nothing can stop me.” After I began trauma therapy, it became very important to me to strengthen my body. Until then, I had been the kind of person who loathed physical activity. Suddenly my desire to self-improve motivated me to start running. Soon I was averaging seven miles a day and what became clear to me, whether I was pounding pavement or the treadmill, was that I wasn’t just doing this for my health. I was giving my anger an outlet.
When we’re a victim of abuse, anger can seem to well up out of nowhere. One minute we were listening to a song, opening a letter, or pouring a cup of coffee. The next minute all we can think is, “How dare they?”
Something triggers us to remember the abuse and we feel on guard. Maybe we’ve never been in touch with our anger before recovery because it wasn’t allowed or it was dangerous. If the abuse took place as a child, there’s a part that thinks, “I’d like to see them try to do that to me now!”
Running for me was a way of saying, “I’m stronger than you” to my abuser. Sometimes it hit me in the middle of a run. Sometimes it made me workout on a day when I was feeling under the weather. But it was often a guiding motivation.
People would say things like, “Gosh, seven miles in 30 minutes? How are you still standing?” It made me feel strong and powerful and proud — a way I had never felt in my life. I was always helpless. I was always submissive to the will of others. Now I finally felt like a woman made of steel.
Of course sometimes I’d pull something in my leg or shoulder (I also did weight training). I knew I had to stretch and rest my muscles and joints, but it was hard to lay off the exercise. That’s when I realized I might be doing something bad to myself. After all, it’s unreasonable to refuse to abstain from exercise when you’re injured. I knew that much.
When exercising, the body releases endorphins, neurotransmitters that stimulate mood, having a similar effect to morphine, and reduce pain perception. In the long term, it helps level out moods. In the short term, it enables a person to muscle through the wear and tear of working out.
Ignoring the pain. That’s something an abuse victim knows all too well. It’s a skill we’ve honed better than anyone else could even imagine. But is it helping or hurting?
These are a few things for a trauma survivor to keep in mind when it comes to exercise:
- How many days have you worked out this week? I didn’t need anyone to tell me to workout 3-5 times a week. I worked out 7 days a week and there was no stopping me. Someone wants me to go to brunch? I can’t. I got to exercise. If you find yourself too committed to working out every day, you might be doing it for the wrong reasons.
- Have you already worked out today? I know it may sound like a stupid question, but I actually felt triggered and wanted to go back to the gym on many occasions. Don’t do it. Instead, have a good stretch. Walk to the mailbox and back. Pick up the living room a little bit. You’ve done all you need to do today.
- Divide your workout into “Push” days and normal days. Some days, let’s say four times a week, you can push yourself to run farther, lift heavier, do more reps, etc. The rest of the time, don’t push so hard. Some exercise enthusiasts live their life by the code of “pushing” themselves more and more, but part of trauma recovery is being gentle with yourself. Listen to your body and know the limitations. Respecting your own boundaries makes you stronger, not weak.
- Consider yoga. The beauty of yoga practice is slow, mindful movement. It takes patience and thoughtfulness. You learn to ground yourself and control your breath. Both put us in touch with our body immediately and absolutely. Yoga also treats the body as a garden, carefully tending to each part of the body to strengthen muscle — the best of both worlds.
Treadmill photo available from Shutterstock