How can exercise release trauma stored in your body

This blog discusses the current research investigating the impact of traumatic experiences, the effects of unresolved trauma on the mind and body and how exercise liberates the grip of unresolved trauma through meditative motion, newfound strength, and neuroplasticity.

In the labyrinth of trauma, healing takes many forms. The impact of trauma is often long-lasting, affecting both mind and body.  

Here at RESET, we take a radically different approach to other treatments. We offer a unique integrative approach to mental health treatment, which is currently in place via the NHS at SIAS and Wolverhampton – Recover Near You. We believe that everyone, regardless of their past, deserves to achieve their full potential and live a happy and fulfilling life. While we often recommend our own integrative approach, this may not suit everyone! We aim to help you make an informed decision on the best path for your unique needs.

release trauma stored in the body

What is unresolved trauma?

Experiences considered as traumatic may differ considerably between people, with our ability to cope with stress affected by everything from our genetics to our early environment and attachment history! As such, it’s important to be mindful that what you consider a traumatic event may be completely different from someone else. 

When left untreated, a traumatic event can cause lasting emotional distress. This is why we wrote this blog to support people take their first steps in addressing their (mental) health.

Signs that you may have unresolved trauma

There are a number of signs that you may have unresolved trauma. These signs include bodily sensations (e.g. physical pain and tension, hypervigilance, changes in appetite, fatigue and exhaustion, and increased heart/breathing rate), behaviours (e.g. avoidance of situations, places, or people), and emotions/thoughts (e.g. feeling disconnected, emotional numbing, experiencing flashbacks/intrusive thoughts, and depression and anxiety).

How can exercise help with unresolved trauma?

Current research supports using physical activity for a range of mental health problems. By promoting a sense of embodiment, we can increase internal awareness and “get out of our heads” during exercise, which has been successfully used to improve symptoms of trauma

Although people often first think of yoga, lifting weights can also be a mindful practice, focusing on grounding your body and directing attention to our body while we lift.

Empowerment

Through improving our ability in a specific exercise, we can empower ourselves to take control of our bodies. As traumatic experiences can lead to feelings of helplessness or vulnerability, we can regain a sense of control of our body through improving our physical capabilities. This sense of empowerment is perhaps even strongest outside the gym, as individuals begin to view themselves as strong and capable in every aspect of their lives.

Neuroplasticity

Exercise can also lead to enhanced neuroplasticity, referring to the brain’s ability to grow, restructure, and adapt to new experiences. This exercise-induced neuroplasticity is a well-documented response and is thought to arise from a variety of complex mechanisms.

By improving the brain’s ability to change in response to new situations, you can promote flexible and adaptive coping strategies. For individuals struggling with unresolved trauma, this flexibility is crucial, encouraging a wider range of possible responses to stressful stimulation and potentially decreasing avoidance behaviour. 

Reconnecting with the body

Unresolved trauma can lead to a feeling of disconnection between the mind and body. Strenuous exercise demands attention to bodily movements, sensations, and energy levels, creating an opportunity for focusing on our internal experiences and expressing feelings constructively. This focus can aid reconnection, serving to ground individuals in the current moment and cultivate self-awareness.

Community

Exercise can often create a deep sense of community, helping us to forge new relationships with like-minded people or spend time in a supportive environment like a local gym. In fact, when interviewed, a sense of community was mentioned by regular lifters as particularly important for support and connection. This sense of community can be absolutely crucial for those battling unresolved trauma, especially for those who regularly feel isolated.

Implementing Exercise Into Your Life

There are a range of possible strategies to increase our exercise levels, such as dance and movement therapy, which may foster self-awareness and shift attitudes about movement. One way to combat this anxiety is through using a personal trainer, local class, or starting with a friend! 

Of course, getting started with a new type of exercise or training can be very intimidating. For example, some have suggested that a major barrier to starting strength training is feeling like they don’t fit the stereotype of a weightlifter and are unwelcome. 

Additionally, those struggling with unresolved trauma may fear exercise as they associate physiological changes with unpleasant emotions like anxiety. 

ake sure you choose the type of exercise that you think would work best for you, to encourage you to stay consistent!

Next steps in releasing trauma in your body

As we navigated the depths of trauma’s impact, we sought to unearth healing through exercise. We’ve summarised the transformative power of exercise to release trauma stored within the body. Regular training can provide a tool to reclaim your body, mind, and life. 

At RESET, we use our integrative trauma-informed model for mental health treatment, including elements of CBT, mindfulness, psychotherapy, breathwork, and of course, exercise! By treating all aspects of an individual’s life, we regularly see massive improvements for our clients.

From empowerment and stress relief to reconnection and creating resilience, the positive impact of exercise on unresolved trauma is a testament to the intricate relationship between physical and emotional well-being. In this article, you’ve learned how exercise can liberate trauma and reconnect mind and body. 

If you are struggling to exercise, we wrote a blog that might help you find what works for you and another about the evidence on how exercise helps with your overall mental health.

MSc Jake Whitehouse-Muir is an Assistant Psychologist and Research Lead at The RESET Health Group.

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