How Exercise Helps You Heal From Stress & Trauma
Thinking your way through a stressful or triggering situation doesn’t work for everyone! Those of you that have lived a particularly traumatic life and now struggle with what feels like constant anxiety and stress may find it INCREDIBLY difficult to cope using your mind and thoughts.
Many of you might notice that when you get anxious or stressed, you tend to become physically immobilized while your brain is running a marathon that leads you nowhere - just desperately wanting a way to feel better.
You try and try to think it through or talk it out, but you’re left feeling stuck - and it’s at that point that you start to wonder if something is really wrong with you. Why is it so hard? Why are you so different from “normal” people? What the heck is going on with your brain?
You are not permanently broken! So start by taking a few deep breaths and grab a drink of water. Let’s go on a journey together to understand the impact of stress and trauma on the brain.
The Neuroscience of Trauma and Stress
When a person is subjected to a stressful event or circumstance, the brain and nervous system kick into action not only for survival in the moment but also to learn how to survive future scenarios. The stress-response begins in the amygdala - a part of the brain responsible for recognizing danger and sounding the alarm to the rest of the brain and body to protect you.
This is also known as the fight-or-flight response. Its main agenda is survival by whatever means possible. It shuts down parts of your brain and body to preserve energy so that you can respond to whatever danger has been perceived. You might physically fight off the danger. You might run away if that’s an option. If it’s not an option, then you might fawn, or go along with whatever the circumstance is to get through it. Or you might completely freeze.
This is a response that we all have to stress. Once the perceived threat is no longer there, the brain and body shift into what’s called rest-and-digest mode to allow you to recover from it. But what happens when a person endures repeated trauma or ongoing stress in their life?
Simply put, the amygdala and the sympathetic nervous system - responsible for the fight-or-flight response - get overstimulated. And the parasympathetic nervous system - responsible for rest-and-digest mode - gets understimulated.
Let’s talk a little more about the parts of the brain affected most by trauma, PTSD, and chronic stress.
Its job is to perceive and process threats and regulate emotions. As already mentioned, it becomes overactive in people that have experienced trauma. It can cause you to develop chronic issues of fear - fear of other people and fear of your surroundings (Van der Kolk, 2014).
The amygdala is primarily concerned with your survival above all else. From the time you are born, it is collecting information to protect you from danger. When it's overstimulated you may develop issues like intrusive memories, nightmares and other physical symptoms (Diamond & Zoladz, 2016).
Its job is to store your memories and experiences for future reference. It lives in close proximity to your amygdala. When the brain is under chronic stress, the hippocampus is known to get smaller in volume making it harder to access, process, and learn after traumatic experiences (O’Doherty et al., 2015). This begins to answer the question above about why it can be so hard to work through triggering circumstances when you experience them in the present day.
Its job is to process and transfer most of your sensory experiences; things like sight, sound, touch and sensations in your body. Think of this as a sort of operator station in your brain. It picks up the signals and then makes a determination on whether or not to transfer that information to your cortex for conscious interpretation.
It helps your brain integrate the sensations you have with the full story of a memory. But what happens when trauma and stress occur? Well, the thalamus shuts downs! The necessary filtering and integration of your sensations stops happening and you experience SENSORY OVERLOAD! This can lead to all kinds of unhelpful coping mechanisms to try to numb out the stimulation (Van der Kolk, 2014).
This is the meat and potatoes of your cognitive processing. The frontal lobes are responsible for language, abstract thinking, planning, and decision making. It's also where your imagination and ability to empathize comes from (Van der Kolk, 2014).
Traditional talk therapy often relies heavily on this part of your brain to verbally work through your experiences, explore different perspectives, and make choices about how to move forward.
Remember the fight-or-flight response we talked about before? When your amygdala sounds the alarm and the sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear, this part of your brain goes offline. It’s been noted in research that the volume of this part of the brain decreases under chronic stress making it challenging to think your way through your fear responses (Scaglione & Lockwood, 2014). Because this portion of your brain is underfunctioning, you might experience flashbacks or recurring upsetting emotions (Van der Kolk, 2014).
So when it comes to stress and trauma, we know how it affects the brain and why it’s difficult to cope now. What do we do with this information? Great question! We learn ways to heal the brain to improve your ability to handle what life throws your way. To do this, we must get out of the brain and into the body!
What The Research Says About Yoga and Exercise for Trauma Healing
If you have some free time, take to google and do some self-guided research on the topic. You’ll find loads of studies that highlight the effectiveness of exercise, yoga, and meditation for those with trauma, PTSD, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. For now, we’ll just review the outcomes found in some of the literature.
A group of researchers reviewed several studies in 2019 to determine the effects of yoga and meditation on brain health and functioning. The studies they reviewed were all done with adults that engaged in various holistic yoga practices for 10-24 weeks, although the frequency of practice varied from daily to biweekly.
Through MRIs they found several positive changes within the brains of participants. It was noted that the hippocampus increased in volume, the thickness of the cortex increased and gray matter increased. They found a decrease in emotional reactivity and an increase in cognitive control when participants were exposed to stressful and demanding situations. And lastly the brain scans showed more connectivity between the brain regions improving overall functioning. (Gothe, N. P., et al, 2019)
In a pilot study conducted in Canada this year, a group of young adults with trauma symptoms were assigned at random to an exercise intervention group and a control group. The participants in the exercise group were provided at-home exercise videos that did not require any equipment. They engaged in three 40-minute exercise sessions - a 5-minute warm up, 30 minutes of exercise, and a 5-minute cool down - per week for 8 weeks total.
Without going into all the testing and assessment mumbo gumbo, let’s just say the outcomes on mood and emotion regulation were significant! The participants in the exercise group reported a decrease in stress and depression levels in comparison to the control group. Because of the improvement in mood, participants demonstrated improved ability to manage emotions and distress when triggered. (Mizzi, A. L., et al, 2022)
We could be here all day discussing the benefits of movement on mental health and brain health, but the real take home here is that YOUR BRAIN AND BODY CAN HEAL!!!
Recommendations For You
Have you been convinced that developing some kind of exercise or yoga practice can help you? This is something that you can start right now - you don’t have to invest anything except some time to figure out what will work for you and where to build this into your daily life.
Here is some guidance to get you started:
For anxiety, you’ll want to focus on breathwork, cardio exercise, interval training, and yoga. There are many kinds of yoga, but it's always recommended that you start with something that is restorative like Yin or Raja until you know what your body can handle.
For depression, you’ll want to focus on pranayama breathing, cardio exercise, strength training, and yoga. Similar to anxiety, start slow and focus on restorative practices.
For PTSD, you’ll want to follow the recommendations mentioned for anxiety, but structure your routine a bit more. Aim for aerobic exercise in the morning and shift to yoga, breathwork and meditation mid to later day.
You’ll notice that healing is often referred to as a journey and that’s because it truly is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight and it can be messy and intense. Most people don’t have the ability to pause life to work things through, so learning new skills and strategies that you can integrate into your daily life will help you tremendously.
We benefit so much more in therapy when we can see the whole picture and give attention to all aspects of your health - mind and body. In my work with survivors of trauma and those with anxiety, we first work on building trust and openness with each other. Then we work on understanding the full scope of your experience and bring awareness to patterns, cycles, and triggers that contribute to your challenges. Once we have an understanding, we can implement specific skills, exercises, practices, and life routines to help you heal and move forward in your life.
Call me for a complimentary consultation at 954-391-5305 and let’s get started together! I offer counseling and EMDR Therapy at our beautiful Coral Springs office. I also provide convenient online counseling via our secure telehealth platform for those who reside in the state of Florida.
Diamond, D., & Zoladz, P. (2016). Dysfunctional or hyperfunctional? The amygdala in posttraumatic stress disorder is the bill in the evolutionary china shop. Journal of Neuroscience Research, 94: 437-444.
Gothe, N. P., Khan, I., Hayes, J., Erlenbach, E., & Damoiseaux, J. S. (2019). Yoga effects on Brain Health: A systematic review of the current literature. Brain Plasticity, 5(1), 105–122.
Mizzi, A. L., McKinnon, M. C., & Becker, S. (2022). The impact of aerobic exercise on mood symptoms in trauma-exposed young adults: A pilot study. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 16.
O’Doherty, D., Chitty, K, Saddiqui, S., et al. (2015). A systematic review and meta-analysis of magnetic resonance imaging measurement of structural volumes in posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. 232: 1-33.
Scaglione, C., & Lockwood, P. (2014). Application of neuroscience research to understanding and treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. International Journal of Applied Science and Technology, 4(1): 35-45.
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin group.