I’m not your typical fitness professional. Personal training and coaching is my second career, which I didn’t take up until I was in my late 30s. I set out on my new career path because I felt called to become a trauma-informed personal trainer, which is the type of trainer I had sought myself, but couldn’t find, when I was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What was I searching for?
I wanted fitness coaching from someone who understood how trauma changed the way I experienced my body and the world around me. It was my experience, which I later found was supported by research, that exercise had the power to help me heal, but it also had the potential to exacerbate my trauma symptoms.
This is something the public rarely hears about. PTSD and exercise don’t always mix.
It wasn’t as if I thought to myself, “You ought to get yourself some trauma-informed help.” First, I had to hit rock bottom, which for me was a severe injury that came from training with a traumatized mindset. I was training in both barbell sports and karate five times a week. Once passionate about cooking and eating all sorts of food, my eating patterns became rigid and restrictive. I saw food only as fuel that would make me stronger and leaner, therefore faster and more powerful.
No one at the gym pulled me aside to ask, “Why are you training so intensely?” In fact, quite the contrary: my work ethic, discipline, and drive to become unstoppable were celebrated. The only person who asked about it was my therapist.
“I want to be as strong as possible,” I said.
“Why do you want to be as strong as possible?”
To be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to my compulsion for getting stronger.
“So… I am ready for… anything,” I replied in a stilted manner.
Even talking about my fear of being harmed scared me. I was working hard to keep it together as intrusive images flashed in my mind’s eye.
“What might ‘anything’ be?” she volleyed back.
When I heard this question, I thought she was crazy, which is an unsettling thought to have about your own therapist. My eyes darted right to the door. I had the urge to run from her office but felt rooted to the spot. As far as I was concerned, threats loomed just over my shoulder and around every corner, and I felt I had to be prepared to face this all-but-inevitable threat. Developing superhuman strength seemed to be the only way to keep myself safe.
But with all that training—including working through exhaustion and even incredible pain—I undermined myself by developing a severe injury that left me barely able to walk across my apartment.
The morning everything changed
I doubt I’ll forget the morning everything changed. I woke up hurting everywhere. As I began to sit up, a niggling sensation in my chest exploded into a geyser of fear—all pressure and heat—that shot up from my heart to my head. I swung my feet to the floor, and as I moved to stand up, my left leg quaked and gave out as I tried to get out of bed. “No, no, no, no, no,” I whispered to myself. I moved to lower my head into my hands and was met with such searing pain in my spine, I shot upright. Dread washed over me. “Oh no, no, no, no!” I cried out louder.
I was familiar with back injuries. A back injury is what prompted me to start strength training eight years prior. The first thing I learned when my back went out the first time is how much you depend on it to move.
When I woke up virtually unable to use my left leg or back, I realized I wouldn’t be able to outrun or fight off anything. “Stupid idiot,” I muttered to myself. A literal pain in my butt was radiating down my leg. It had been troubling me for about six weeks, getting progressively worse as I ignored it and kept relentlessly training. I came to learn it was a case of sciatica so severe I had partial paralysis in my left lower leg. In my quest to make myself impervious to attack, I had rendered myself practically immobile.
My recovery was tedious and slow. It took months of physical therapy before I could do much with my body other than drag myself to my therapist and physical therapy appointments. For weeks, I only managed to get through simple, supported gym exercises and soft tissue work. The gym was like a home for me, and I felt safe enough there to relax. Once I relaxed, I could move a bit more, and I would feel a bit better.
But as I would walk home from the gym, slowly limping my way down New York City’s bustling Sixth Avenue, I felt like a target for whatever malevolence lurked inside doorways and around corners. This fear would cause me to tense back up, which would always set me back a bit. If I didn’t feel safe in my body, I couldn’t feel safe anywhere.
It’s harder to recognize a maladaptive relationship to exercise than is it to spot struggles with alcohol or drugs. I looked so healthy, but I had never been so unwell. Throughout my rehabilitation, most people thought I was trying to get back to how I had been training before my back went out. But I knew something had to shift. I had to figure out how to change my relationship with exercise so it would support my health.
In between physical therapy and talk therapy sessions, I began to study trauma. I read Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine, Judith Herman, David Emerson, Stephen Porges, and Deb Dana and took classes in mindfulness.
Getting into the practice
Many wellness practitioners get into the practice because of their own lived experiences, and I was no exception. Once I was able to train with a barbell again, I decided to become a trauma-informed personal trainer to help others. My studies deepened through workshops and classes I took with the people whose books I had read. I enrolled in the Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP) program. Eventually, I hung out my proverbial shingle, and clients from around the world found me via Google almost right away. Turns out, I was not alone in my need for this type of support.
We teach people to go to talk therapy for their PTSD, treating it as if emotions and thoughts are separate from our bodies when, in fact, they are part of our physiological experience. And we teach people to go to the gym to tend to their bodies as if our brains have nothing to do with how we move. In reality, our nervous system is integral to everything we do with our bodies and how we feel our feelings.
Prior to the sciatica, I had sometimes experienced trauma flashbacks while I trained, like a mental precursor to my back spasms. I found that by incorporating mindfulness practices with movement, I began to feel safe in my body. Because I felt safe, my back lessened its grip, freeing it to move efficiently. And by applying models of the nervous system and somatic treatments for trauma to my exercise program, my nervous system settled, making flashbacks less likely, which enabled me to train without becoming overwhelmed.
What I didn’t see coming was that this work not only enabled me to return to the gym but also to build skills that helped me psychologically—like increasing my emotional vocabulary through movement (feeling a boundary in a push or an ask for more in a pull) and detecting shifts in sensations and behaviors, which I could begin to link to emotions and memories. I also increased my capacity for stress, including the stress of processing my trauma, and increased my tolerance for rest so that I could integrate all the work I was doing in therapy and the gym. Resting can be hard if you equate stillness with fear, but also necessary for healing and growth.
Today, I’m a trauma-informed trainer who recognizes the signs of trauma and has skills to work with trauma in the gym. I understand how to use exercise to support folks as they do the hard work of healing from emotional or physical trauma (which often go hand in hand)—and what tools they need to thrive.
I became the trauma-informed trainer I needed.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.