When we exercise, are we strengthening more than just our body? In a recent article, Brad Stulberg explained how working out strengthens the mind. Physical exertion means having to face something that many of us avoid every day: Discomfort.
“In a world where comfort is king, arduous physical activity provides a rare opportunity to practice suffering,” Stulberg writes. After interviewing various athletes and reviewing research, he found the psychological benefits were clear. Withstanding physical discomfort taught the athletes to stay in the moment and adapt. They learned to divide real risk from perceived risk (something every stressed out person struggles to do). Athletes face discomfort with courage and even embrace the pain.
There’s something about physical exertion that grounds us in our body. Makes us feel completely one with ourselves. As a sexual abuse survivor, picking up an exercise routine was the first time I truly felt “in my body.” Dissociating from my body was my way of coping with the trauma. When I exercised, I felt the strain of my muscles, the sweat, the tension, and the warmth. There was no way to maintain coordination and stamina without being there in my body — timing cardio, counting reps, getting ready for an incline.
I finally felt encompassed by a physical boundary and wanted to learn more about it. The more strength and endurance training I tried, the more concerned I became with what I put into my body. I needed to stay hydrated and consume energizing and restorative whole foods.
As my body grew stronger, I actually felt powerful for the first time in my life. I once lived in denial of the abuse, but as I grew accustomed to discomfort, these uncomfortable issues naturally began to surface. I was beginning to deal with my memories and feelings bit by bit, until it was time to begin therapy.
I still work out on a regular basis. I know my physical limitations and how to gradually, patiently push them back. I know the parts of my body that need the most care: right shoulder, ankles, thoracic spine. I’ve learned to respond to pulls, tears, and overstressed muscles. I tend to my body like a garden. That’s why embracing the pain of exertion can feel comforting.
Supportive friends often told me that trauma survivors are some of the strongest people in the world. I understood what they meant, but I didn’t feel strong until I started working out.
Getting comfortable with discomfort helped me to face the past. Feelings of disgust and shame were crippling but somehow manageable. I could reach out and ask for help without feeling weak and helpless.
Accepting discomfort helps me tell my story, even when met with invalidation, because I know it’s temporary. It doesn’t last forever.
Public Domain Image by Cara Neil on Flickr.