Five Ways Physical Exercise Helps Process Trauma

August 17th 2022

Collins Wellness is a counselling service based in Kamloops, that focuses on non-traditional approaches to therapy and mental well-being. We believe that increasing self-awareness is one of the first steps to becoming a healthier, happier, and richer person.

We have worked hard to provide a safe and gentle space for people to explore their personal stories and histories. At Collins Wellness we pride ourselves on our multidisciplinary approach and focus on patient care.

Trauma is any experience or event where we have felt out of control. So, whenever we are reminded of the memory our brain and body respond as if the experience is happening right now. Traumatic experiences can affect anyone and can affect our thoughts, feelings, work, and relationships – therefore it is important to take the time to process trauma in a healthy way.

Regular exercise doesn't necessarily process trauma, but it's a great support for the journey. It may help manage trauma responses and reduce the impact they have on daily life. At Collins Wellness we can help you work through and process trauma, making it a memory of the past.

Here are a few ways that exercise helps:

Dealing with Symptoms of Trauma

There have been numerous studies into the link between exercise and mental wellbeing. A study from Arizona State University found that physical activity/fitness can help with the relief of symptoms of depression and anxiety. After looking into the effect of exercise on the brain, the study found that weeks of regular aerobic exercise was best for treating anxiety. Meanwhile, vigorous exercise performed several times a week may also raise self-esteem and help gain restful sleep – which may reduce the symptoms of depression.

Balancing the Body's Chemicals and Hormones

After experiencing trauma your nervous system is unbalanced. Exercise can help you restore your confidence, raise self-esteem, and, most importantly, rebalance your hormones. Regular physical activity can improve your brain’s ability to respond to stress and help you develop your sense of self and inner confidence. Exercise can help you better manage situations that might make you feel overwhelmed, anxious, and/or triggered. With the proper support, regular fitness can help train your nervous system to be more flexible and rebound easier.

If you need trauma processing support, seek help, but also begin an exercise routine to support your body during the process.

Boost Neuroplasticity

Did you know? A study from the University of Illinois found that exercise can enhance neurocognition. They concluded that aerobic exercise directly benefits the development of your basal ganglia. This is the part of the brain responsible for maintaining attention, executive control, and the ability to coordinate thoughts and actions clearly.

Physical activity has been proven to increase the capacity for learning and retaining memories (see study here). Exercise has also been shown to protect against neuronal and neurotoxic damage.

Manage Flight-Fight-Freeze-Fawn Response

Trauma is any experience or event where we felt out of control and it is stored in our brain and body as a present moment memory. Our brain and body has not processed it into the past. Therefore, whenever we are reminded of the memory our brain and body responds as if the experience is happening right now and we begin the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response all over again.

To process our trauma, we must do the mental work but physical activity can support our body when it is responding with a fight-flight-freeze-fawn response.

It Leads to Better Sleep…

Regular physical activity has been shown to enhance self-esteem and the alleviation of negative mood states such as anxiety and depression.  

Aerobic fitness can increase your body's need for deep restorative sleep and you may find that you sleep better at night as your body tries to compensate for the high physical activity during the day. A study into the link between mental well-being and exercise found that exercise significantly increases total sleep time and that engaging in physical activity means your body will fall asleep faster, sleep longer and have a more restful sleep.

Even though exercise doesn't necessarily help us process traumatic memories or experiences it is an excellent support in dealing with the symptoms of trauma such as anxiety, depression, rumination, emotional & physical regulation, balancing the body's chemicals and hormones, increasing brain function, giving a release to the body's stress response and lowering cortisol levels in the brain.

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