Domestic abuse is a widespread problem. Women, children, and families are all impacted by this abuse – and survivors can face years of trauma-related issues, even after fleeing the abusive relationship. The trauma caused by abuse affects survivors physically, emotionally, and mentally. And while there is no one solution to overcoming trauma, research suggests that working out might help.
The Trauma Response
When we experience trauma – whether domestic abuse or otherwise – our bodies and brains change. Whether the trauma and abuse happened in childhood or adulthood, we experience very visceral reactions to emotional and physical abuse.
Domestic abuse survivors often experience symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD (some are even diagnosed with PTSD). These symptoms include:
- Increased rates of depression and anxiety
- Hyper-sensitivity to outside stimuli
- Brain changes, including increased fear centers and decreased memory retention
- Chronic pain
- Difficulty expressing emotion
- Relational and marital problems
- Higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease
Certain “triggers” can make these symptoms worse. Reliving those events, seeing something that reminds us of the trauma, or even hearing a noise or smelling a familiar scent can trigger those fight-or-flight responses.
However, it is possible to overcome the trauma associated with abuse.
Trauma Follows Us
In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, trauma researcher and therapist Dr. Vessel van der Kolk writes:
“After trauma, the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives. These attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases. This explains why it is critical for trauma treatment to engage the entire organism, body, mind, and brain.”
Put more simply, trauma follows us – long after we have left the abusive environment. Even if an abuse survivor is now safely out of the dangerous situation, the physical and psychological impacts will continue long into the future.
However, research suggests that channeling those fears, emotions, and frenetic energy into physical activity can help lessen the effects trauma survivors experience.
Physical Activity and Overcoming Trauma
There are many ways to overcome trauma and live healthy, happy lives. While moving past childhood or adulthood trauma isn’t easy, it is possible.
Research shows that physical activity can play a vital role in helping trauma survivors experience fewer negative symptoms. In fact, exercise can boost the mood of everyone – not just people who have experienced trauma.
Multiple research reports have found that even 30 minutes of activity a few times a week can dramatically improve mood, reduce stress, and lessen symptoms associated with PTSD and trauma responses. It can be any activity: yoga, CrossFit, aerobics, boxing, or anything else you enjoy.
When paired with professional counseling and other trauma-sensitive recovery methods, exercise is a critical component in the healing process. It IS possible to overcome trauma after abuse.