6 Steps to Create a Trauma-Sensitive Approach to Your Home Movement and Exercise Practice
As the call from doctors to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus pandemic became the social media influencer’s call to #flattenthecurve, free at-home workouts began to flood the social media, many of them declaring, “No excuses!” and “No rest days! And while I am happy that more workouts are becoming increasingly accessible to more people, I am terrified of the messaging that has left the commercial gym floor and landed in the sanctity of our homes.
Let’s be clear: I do think taking care of our bodies is critical right now. Each day I ask my husband and daughter what they are going to do for their body that day. Yesterday my daughter said, “Dance!” (She’s teaching herself K-Pop dances.) My husband said, “Go for a brisk walk.” “Rest,” I said. And I did, even though my new stay-at-home training program from my coach declared it a strength training day.
I elected to rest because I was exhausted from being worried. I am not always worried right now. My worst days are reminiscent of my days struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The day before opting to rest, I had become hypervigilant and on guard against an invisible threat — in this case, a virus. My muscles had braced for hours against attack. My mind ran a million threat sequences and came up with a plan for each. I was depleted. So I rested, even though my schedule said it was a training day. By rest I mean, I took a walk instead of strength trained. And no, not a brisk walk. A slow and embodied walk. And not only did nothing bad happen, something good happened. My mind quieted down and my body felt better.
Listening to myself from day to day, and implementing my fitness program accordingly, is the foundation to my own trauma-informed approach to training. I want to invite each of you to take a more trauma-sensitive approach to your stay-at-home workout routines, so I thought I would share the six things I have been doing for myself while engaging in my stay-at-home workout routine in order to make exercise part of my own mental health and wellness plan.
Choose your modality thoughtfully.
Ask yourself what you want from your movement modality today and select one accordingly.
Strength and conditioning has been my jam for fourteen years. I love to feel strong and to get my heart rate up while strength training–it really makes me feel good in my body and happy in my brain. So I am sticking to a strength and conditioning program and adding in walks and yoga to get grounded as needed.
Make it embodied.
Embodied movement is a foundational principle of my trauma-sensitive framework. Getting moving is often described by people who love it as “grounding” and “empowering.” And it can be — if we really experience it, such that we feel the strength and power in our bodies. But all too often we focus on how we look doing an exercise rather than how we feel. When we focus on appearances — usually of strength and mobility — not only is proper form often sacrificed (for instance, recruiting the low back muscles to do a bicep curl or bending only in your lumbar spine for a deep backbend) but so are the grounding and empowering moments. You will get more out of your workout both in terms of performance and grounding if you stay embodied as you train.
Check in with yourself as you move.
Staying embodied also allows you to assess how you are actually doing and feeling during a workout. Are you staying within your tolerance for stress, rather than the tolerance for stress of the instructor on your Facebook live video? Can you breathe through your nose? Can you take in information when you pause? Are you able to come back to yourself when you catch yourself checking out? If not, since we are training for overall health and wellness, it would benefit you to make some time to get back to a place where you can. Hit pause on the workout and get grounded.
Be compassionate with yourself.
My first clients came to me because I was “the nice trainer.” What they were saying was that I heard them, empathized with them, and did not ask them to override their own body’s signals in the name of pursuing strength and fitness goals. We were working toward overall wellness — not training for a competition. Now that you are your own instructor — even if you are following someone else’s program — extend that listening and empathy to yourself. When you check in with yourself and you find you need a break — give yourself the break without giving yourself a heaping dish of judgement on the side. Friend, we have literally never lived through a pandemic before. Applying someone else’s standards to yourself even during non-pandemic-times is not fair nor kind.
Write it down.
I keep a workout journal to track my workouts and progress. During harder times in my life, I write a few sentences in my journal after a workout about how I felt before and after. Or I jot down if I had a surge of feelings, a thought, or a strong physical response to something. This practice allows me to build connections between behavior, sensations, and emotions, which are all useful information when it comes to processing and metabolizing all the stressors of sheltering in place that will overwhelm me if I don’t process and metabolize them.
Seriously people, rest. We need to rest to give our bodies a chance to recover from the work of exercise and the work of handling the storm of stressors the coronavirus has thrown at us. I need more rest these days than the ones in which I am free to run around errand to errand. Allow yourself the opportunity to recover.
My own practice grew out of my own desire to heal. I then got into this work out of a deep desire to share what I have learned. And while this call to share has been loud and clear for some time, it feels greater than ever right now. May you use these tools and share them with loved ones who may benefit. Move with intention and compassion, and be well.