How Exercise Can Both Heal And Trigger Survivors Of Sexual Assault

Sexual assault survivors often find re-traumatization when they exercise.

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April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. As your resident sex educator, I want to empower you with tools to navigate relationships in a healthy and nourishing way. Every week for the month of April I’ll be writing a piece relating to sexual empowering — to help survivors of sexual trauma navigate their way to sex and relationships that make them feel like their most liberated sexual self.

This week, the topic is delving into how exercise relates to trauma and how to work through PTSD. 

Trauma is like a sneaky chameleon — a shapeshifter that lives in the bodies of those who have experienced horrible things. One of the ways trauma often manifests for sexual violence survivors is through struggling with feeling embodied, or difficulties feeling present in their body.  I like to define embodiment as the tangible presence of your being, it’s not just about having a body — it’s about inhabiting that body with what makes you you, that mind/body connection yoga teachers are always talking about.

But when violence is enacted on the body in such a visceral way, survivors of sexual violence can find themselves wanting to be as far away from their physical body as possible. I know that for myself, after being raped, I felt dirty in my body and I did just about anything to avoid being fully present in the moment. Whether it was drinking copious amounts of alcohol or running away from everyone I knew to a brand new city or creating fantastical worlds through my writing — these were all tactics I employed to make sure I didn’t have to live in my dirty and abused body anymore. All of these things felt like an attempt at healing but in reality they were just expanding the distance between myself and my body.

The messy thing about trauma that a lot of people who haven’t experienced it don’t know — is that healing from it is never linear. And that’s because trauma isn’t the incipient, but the aftermath of violence. It’s what manifests in someone when their threat response cycle wasn’t able to complete in a moment of violence — they couldn’t enact a fight or flight response, so their body went into the freeze response. Trauma is when you get stuck in the freeze response to violence. Meaning their body is left with an incomplete threat response cycle that continues to loop over and over again seeking a different result. A healing result.

All of this is to say that trauma will reappear for sexual violence survivors at the most inopportune moments when it’s least expected. But trauma doesn’t send you a push notification that an update is coming. No, you just wake up one morning and feel like a wet blanket is dripping from your shoulders and can’t for the life of your explain where it’s come from. “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by the experience on the mind, brain and body,” writes Bessel Van der Kolk in “The Body Keeps Score.”

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After the last time I was sexually assaulted, I ran away from everything. Literally packed my bags and flew to a different country for a year where no one knew my name. And it was there that I did a lot of self healing work. I had breakthroughs about my sexuality and my childhood — it was a really transformational time for me. But then one morning, an unexpected trauma update hit me like a ton of bricks.

It was a sweltering hot Saturday and I decided to take my dog for a run to this little creek we could go for a dip in. I started to feel my heart rate increase, sweat was dripping down the nape of my neck, my muscles were burning and I felt good for a moment. I was proud of myself for exercising — something that I rarely did because of my avoidance of embodiment. But the more my heart rate increased, I started to feel this twang of fluttering butterflies in the pit of my stomach. These weren’t the good kind of lovey butterflies — they were the panicked, frantic butterflies. And this feeling got stuck as a lump in my throat. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I stopped in my tracks and keeled over on the grass. This was my first PTSD episode and it was triggered by exercise.

But everyone applauds exercise — it’s good for your physical health, it increases endorphins to help with depression, it stretches and moves your body in a way that is nourishing. How could this thing that’s supposed to be good for you on every level bring me so much distress? After that episode, I started to hate exercise. Every time someone asked if I wanted to go for a run or do yoga, I would anxiously shut them down right away. Any type of movement that increased my heart rate in such a way brought me right back to the tent I was assaulted in — and I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how to enact fight or flight to complete my threat response cycle that was looping over and over, creating trauma in my body.

Years later, when I became a sex educator — I started to research this phenomenon and found that I wasn’t alone. Sexual assault survivors often find re-traumatization when they exercise — especially if they haven’t had exercise as a part of their regular routine and are now adding it as a modality for healing (as many therapists are wont to recommend). Anxiety and panic attacks happen when your brain pulls up a fear-based response to something that triggers the amygdala (the part of your brain that sets off fight, flight or freeze response).

So, when someone who has experienced sexual violence feels their heart rate increasing from exercise, their body pulls up that memory of the assault when their heart rate was rapidly increasing from fear. Hence, my PTSD response mid-run. In the moment, our bodies don’t process the fact that we actually safe and that’s because memories caused by fearful or stressful situations become even more ingrained into our psyche than other simple memories. That’s why panic attacks and PTSD episodes are so hard to move through because our brains are pulling data from our most stressful and fear-based scenarios.

The equally f*cked up and incredible thing is that, exercise can be a powerful modality for healing these fear-based memories our bodies hold onto. Exercise can help complete that threat response cycle from looping over and over like a broken film reel. So, how does one get to the place of healing through exercise instead of re-traumatizing?

1. Practice increasing your heart rate through breathwork.

There are different therapeutic practices that integrate breathwork, you can look up a healing center near you to try to find a class. Or you can do simple breathing exercises in the safety of your home. I suggest finding a comfortable seated position, you can light some candles around you and play relaxing music if that helps you find a space of serenity. Then close your eyes (or gently focus them on the candlelight) and begin to take two short breaths in through your nose and one long breath out through your mouth. As you do this, you’ll slowly start to feel your heart rate increase.

If you begin to feel in a state of panic, remind yourself that you are in the safety of your own home. Even write those reminders down on a piece of paper in front of you if that helps. This breathwork practice will be a baseline for recreating the narrative around increased heart rate. The more your body relates increased heart rate and breathing with healing and exercise, the more you’ll feel those fear-based memories slip away when you exercise. You are creating new memories for your brain to store and pull on in these moments.

2. Set an intention for your workout. 

Go into your workouts with a sense of preparedness — knowing that for sexual violence survivors, exercise isn’t just about body movement, it also will involve a sense of mindfulness in knowing that your brain might automatically pull on these traumatic memories. Go into exercising with specific intentions and if it helps, communicate those intentions with your workout buddy or instructor. Boxing can be a really incredible way to complete the threat response cycle because your physical being is literally enacting the fight response while your mind is pulling up fear-based memories. This experience will override your trauma and help process it in a way that won’t bring up anxiety whenever your heart rate increases in the future.

If you are super into yoga, then try to find a teacher or studio that integrates mindful practices and not simply the physical movements of yoga. This can help empower sexual assault survivors when they feel ready to move their bodies — yoga has a predictable flow that allows your brain to know what movement is coming next. So while your heart rate might be increasing, your body is allowed to feel safe with this routine of movements. When you workout with an intention in mind, it will help break the anxiety/panic loop because it’s creating new pathways for your amygdala to have a safe and calm “detour” in your brain.

3. Have a trigger plan. 

Now that you’re empowered with the knowledge of why triggers might come up during exercise, you can create safety plans for yourself to enact in case of emergency. There are so many different researched methods for how to create a trigger plan — the majority focus on pulling you back to the present moment and remembering that your body is safe right now. A practice I like to do for myself is bringing all my attention to a part of my body that feels safe, maybe it’s my hand and I apply pressure there. I focus on how the pressure feels on that body part and I slowly start to feel myself come back from the fear-based memory to the reality where I’m safely going for a run.

Another successful trigger plan is the 5 Senses therapeutic method. Basically, you tune into 5 things you can hear, 4 things you can smell, 3 things you can see, 2 things you can taste and 1 thing you can touch. When you’re finished, take stock of how your body feels and if anything has shifted from 5 minutes ago when you were in a state of panic or anxiety.

There are so many different modalities for healing from sexual trauma and exercise can be a difficult one to tackle at first. It can be a really powerful way to breakthrough trauma and create new narratives for your brain to hold onto. While journaling may be great for processing trauma, exercise works on a more visceral level. It increases serotonin and norepinephrine — “serotonin works helps to ramp up your prefrontal cortex which calms down the amygdala. Norepinephrine is critical for breaking down the anxiety cycle. Exercise also increases GABA and BDNF which are both important for cementing new non-anxious memories,” writes Stephanie Matos, an ACSM certified Health Fitness Specialist.

Working out used to be the bane of my existence — but there was always a small voice in my head that intrinsically knew I needed to work through my issues with embodiment in order to continue my lifelong healing from sexual violence. It was always looming over my head and I couldn’t quite figure out how to get past the panic attacks that would happen as soon as I set foot in a yoga studio. It wasn’t until I understood why this was happening that I could move through the continual trauma looping to a new narrative.

And now, exercise has helped me understand that my body is a good place to be.

The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only and should not replace or substitute for any medical, or other professional advice or help. For concerns requiring psychological or medical advice, please consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist This column, its author, the magazine and publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice contained within this column.

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