Physical Activity for the treatment of PTSD & Emotional Trauma

by | Nov 9, 2021 | Emotional Health | 0 comments

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is recognised as the acute or chronic exposure to traumatic life experiences (e.g. war, abuse) with significant persisting psychological, emotional, and physical symptoms, lasting years, or a lifetime. Since 2013 there has been a growing rate of research into the effects of physical interventions for the treatment of trauma or stress disorders like PSTD.

It has grown from necessity, as research indicates those with PTSD have a higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and psycho-emotional conditions. All researchers are concluding that while exercise is beneficial to physical and mental health-related outcomes, more is required to understand the what, why, when and how. 

moody ocean wave

How does trauma affect us?

Firstly, when talking about trauma, it isn’t always related to exposure to things such as war or abuse, it can occur at varying levels from a range of exposures and experiences. This can be secondary through hearing about an event (e.g. hearing your parents discuss an accident), or through relationships you have in early life (i.e. exposure to generational trauma through family).

At some point in your life, you may have been exposed to trauma of some kind as you interact with society. How you interpret the experience of this trauma comes down to a multifactorial soup of intrinsic and extrinsic factors such as:

  • Your ability to consciously regulate and experience your emotions
  • Your own lived experience
  • Whether or not you are physically active and healthy
  • Age / Gender
  • Where you’re from, your family economic status and other factors

What we know about physical interventions and trauma

The term avoidance coping refers to when a person is unable to remain in distressing experiences such as thoughts, emotions, or physiological sensations (e.g. increased heart rate), and will aim to avoid triggering experiences (e.g. social interactions). This is why it can be hard to commit to a gym membership or training program as the combination of anxiety in social situations coupled with the bodily experience of increased heart rate and feeling uncomfortable will make it VERY hard to keep going. It would feel uncomfortable, frustrating, upsetting, and even nauseating.

However, research also tells us that physical interventions can mitigate trauma-related stress by providing a therapeutic context to master the experience of these bodily feelings and actually turn them into pleasurable experiences. Essentially this means that rather than these feelings being related to trauma, your mind-body connection turns them positive, allowing recovery from some of these symptoms associated with trauma.

woman meditating in yoga clothes

Physical activity for the treatment of PTSD & Emotional Trauma

Yoga

Yoga which focuses on breathing, postures, meditation and self-awareness has been shown effective at reducing symptoms of PTSD. While results are inconsistent across many studies we still know it may be beneficial to alleviate PTSD symptoms. Find a trauma-informed provider and talk with them first about their approach and whether it will suit you. Or go with a friend so a regular yoga studio and try it out!

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise seems to be a fairly good adjunct therapy as studies that look at cycling, running and walking all showed alleviation of symptoms, but also when done in a social context with groups increased their social connectedness. This is a great outcome for older veterans, especially those who struggle with maintaining relationships with other people their own age.

Exercising at a moderate intensity 60-80% of target maximal heart rate for 30min, or aerobic exercises for 60-90min such as walking, have both been shown to be effective at reducing symptoms associated with PTSD. Recommendations however among health industry groups still use the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guide of 150min moderate-intensity or 75min vigorous intensity.

Resistance Training

A recent study looked at 30 people with PTSD going through a 3-week resistance training program utilising five different exercises (i.e. squat, bench, pulldowns, curls & overhead press), working at RPE 8 and 3 x 8-12 (sets/reps). They measured reduction in PTSD symptoms, anxiety, alcohol use, and improvements in sleep quality. They explained that resistance exercise will increase physiologic arousal, and the desire to stop (due to it feeling hard essentially), but prolonged exposure to this can facilitate the extinction of avoidance tactics.

You know when you go to lift a weight and at first, it feels heavy or difficult? That voice in your head says “maybe you can’t or shouldn’t lift this”? Well, imagine hearing and feeling that, but then doing it anyway, under guided assistance from a qualified health professional. We now know that having positive experiences, overcoming difficult physical feelings or sensations, being supported and guided, can really help with the physical and psychological symptoms of trauma and PTSD.

The research presented above is further proof that movement is key to the treatment of trauma. If you are anyone you know is struggling with emotional trauma or PTSD, talk with someone who can guide you through treatment with physical activity. 

Our Exercise Physiologists can help get you back to your best performing self. Click here to book in your initial consult today!

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