Halfway through our personal training session my client became disoriented, unfocused, and weepy. Before we began working together she told me that she was a trauma survivor. We were stretching in a peaceful studio when she became overwhelmed with emotion.
“I don’t understand why this is happening now,” she said.
“You brought your body with you,” I reminded her.
Because I’m a self-defense instructor and a trainer, it’s not unusual for my clients to disclose to me when they are survivors of sexual violence, and because I’m a self-defense instructor I know—whether or not clients disclose to me—that a significant number of the women I work with will have experienced interpersonal violence and/or sexual trauma within their lifetime.
Public health research indicates that one in two women will experience a non-rape sexual assault in her lifetime, and one in five will experience rape. A large proportion of these assaults occur when women are 25 or younger, making trauma an invisible commonality among many adult women.
Experts tell us that trauma resides in the body. The neurobiological experience of our human fight, flight, or freeze response influences how we recall and are affected by the original trauma, be it a physical assault, a sexual violation, or a natural disaster. Subsequent experiences that seem to mimic the original event can reproduce a similar emotional or biochemical response. In trauma-awareness speak, this re-experiencing is called “triggering.”
What makes one experience mimic another sufficiently to trigger a cascade of distressing emotions? A gym environment or a movement class typically presents an array of “trigger-available” experiences.
Those of us who have been hurt before may find that no matter how welcoming the space or respectful those around us, the landscape of our own bodies remains mined with painful memories. Something as simple as body position—lying supine on a mat, for instance—can be a trigger. Physical contact, whether in the context of an activity like dance, martial arts or sports, or in the course of movement instruction (cueing, correction, spotting), may also be a trigger.
The social and emotional experience of fitness activities also presents potential pitfalls for survivors. We may become overwhelmed by the frustration of trying to master a complex physical skill, or fear humiliation. We may feel exposed or objectified. Triggers can also be enormously personal: a smell, sound, image or word that has meaning only for the individual can bring on a wave of unwelcome feelings.
Getting a handle on your triggers in life and at the gym requires two primary strategies: awareness and self-regulation. Awareness begins with understanding the human trauma response, which follows two primary patterns: hyperarousal and dissociation. You can strengthen your awareness of these patterns by attending to sensations in your body. Exercise will naturally raise your heart rate, respiration and temperature, but if your heart races or you become clammy, nauseated, light-headed, or short-of-breath in a manner you associate with fear or panic, you may be experiencing hyperarousal.
Conversely, if you find yourself spacey, disoriented, confused, or “not present,” you may be dissociating. (These symptoms can also signal physical issues, so anyone who experiences them while exercising should check in with a physician.)
Increased awareness will help you notice if your feelings are right-sized to the situation at hand. Everyone gets tangled up by challenging choreography in step-class, for example; but if you find yourself overcome by self-loathing or about to throw your step bench across the room, that may be a trigger talking.
Self-regulation means engaging the conscious mind to interrupt a trauma response. Once we become aware of the moments when we are triggered, we can practice skills for self-regulation. Sometimes called “grounding,” these are simple ways that we can become re-oriented to the present and calm our physiological responses.
Here are some basic grounding strategies:
- Reduce the amount of environmental stimulation. If you feel triggered in the middle of Zumba or a pick-up basketball game, move to a quieter space or to the edge of the action.
- Orient to the space you’re in. Identify five things that are blue in the room and catalog them to yourself: “Blue mat, blue shoes, blue yoga block….”
- Tense and release your muscles sequentially. This brings your mind concretely into your current physical experience. Start with curling your toes, then pointing your feet to tighten your calves, then firming your thighs and straightening your knees, and so on.
- Feel what’s holding you up. Notice your feet on the floor, your bottom on your seat, your back against the wall.
- Breathe. Bring your attention to each breath and consciously slow your breathing.
As you get more practice, you may also identify idiosyncratic grounding strategies. People are sometimes surprised that, as a survivor, I enjoy grappling, which would seem a triggering activity. Paradoxically, it’s the extreme physical proximity that usually keeps me solidly grounded. The distinctive smell of my coach’s clean uniform reminds me exactly who I’m with and what I’m doing.
The experience of sexual violation is one of having had our physical self-determination taken from us against our will. The opportunity to fully inhabit our bodies and reclaim our integrity, strength and grace is both an inalienable right and a path to healing.
Trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk has written that learning to tolerate and regulate one’s trigger experiences and experiencing safety and mastery in one’s body are essential for children healing from trauma. It is not just evidence-based but intuitively right that emotional healing can come forth through physical training. As a self-defense instructor, I tell my students that healing from violence is the most badass thing any survivor can ever do.