How Strength Training Helped C-PTSD Recovery
Trauma happens to us in a variety of forms. Each of our trauma experiences are unique managing to change our brain and body. Two people who experience the same traumatic event will not have the same triggers, issues, or take away. Some trauma is blunt and obvious, some small and sits quietly in the background. Each type still manages to shape and change us.
I knew when I was a teenager that my life was not normal. Visiting my friends and family members homes had shown me this. I knew terrible things had happened to me, and that one day I would have to face and analyze how they impacted my life. I was around sixteen when I came to this conclusion and then fell madly in love with “the boy next door”. The task of analyzing my past was pushed aside. I decided to keep moving forward until I couldn’t.
Discovery of Mental Health Issues
I found myself at twenty-six years old in the lobby of a therapist’s office that I had found on Psychology Today. She was specialized in abuse, drug addiction, and childhood issues. She was trained in a trauma treatment technique I had researched and been interested in called EMDR. Since I suffered from child abuse, my abuser was a drug addict, along with other family members I loved, it seemed like it was a good fit. My life at the time was pretty great other than suffering from extreme anxiety and depression. I was successful in my career and had a job that I loved with an immense passion. I had people who cared deeply about me and always encouraged my growth and success. I just wasn’t whole.
When I wasn’t busy with work I was miserable. I did nothing but sleep, eat, and watch TV. I had no energy to care for myself outside of the requirements of working with clients or family events. I weighed in on the scale at my heaviest at 275lbs on a five-foot-five-inch frame. I put on a great exhausting show to cover up how terrible I actually felt. When people commented on how much they enjoyed my humor, joyful company, and laughter, I dismissed it because it wasn’t real. That wasn’t the real me at that time and place.
Like Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang say from the hit show Grey’s Anatomy, I was all dark and twisty inside. Sometimes I let it show to my small inner circle. I was always careful to not let others in on the information. This would often create the fear of possibly having to reveal more of what I had let happen to me. Fear crippled me. Sharing information on my past would mean pain would bubble to the surface that I would have to fight away with energy I didn’t have.
Fresh out of high school I had hoped to be a nurse and work towards becoming a midwife. Poor course counseling derailed the program, so I stuck with my side gig and love of photography. I started working in studios right out of high school when I was 18, was a studio manager of a popular national chain by 19, and started my own photography business on the side. In building my business I shot everything from weddings, families, and babies, and then I found where I most excelled. I ventured into birth work and became a birth photographer and doula in 2013.
Birth work changed me. There were so many happy moments I have been a part of. The vast majority of the time in my birth work, I left my clients homes or hospitals high as a kite. But there are dark days in birth. I have sat with families who have experienced great losses. I have sat with new parents who have experienced trauma from their deliveries. I sat with parents who found themselves in a reality they didn’t expect. As I gave recommendations and encouraged my clients to get help with the obstacles they revealed to me, I realized I wasn’t living the advice I was giving. I wasn’t giving myself the care I needed.
Therapy went well for about a month. I was diagnosed with complex PTSD, anxiety, and depression. I had a few breakthroughs quickly with my therapist, but things started to fizzle out just as quickly. I tried an SSRI medication for a few months, but it didn’t work for me. Like with many things I had done in life I was going to have to carve out my own way. I ventured to the comfort of my favorite place by pressing my nose in books. My favorites of many in this journey I read were: The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Deepest Well by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, and Childhood Disrupted by Donna Jackson Nakazawa. These books taught me a lot. While EMDR therapy works well for many people suffering from PTSD, I had come to learn from Dr. Van Der Kolk that it had a very low rate of effectiveness in treatment for those who have trauma that stemmed from child abuse.
Learning My Triggers
There are two particular breakthroughs that largely got me where I am today. The first I was sitting in the dentist’s office after having not been in eight years. After my cleaning and X-Ray’s, I was placed in a tiny back room and four sheets of paper slid in front of me with a detailed care plan. All I saw was a price tag of $3,000 in dental work staring back at me. My brain would not let me focus on the important information I was getting from the care coordinator talking to me, or allowing me to develop the questions I needed to ask. I was frozen. It was like I blacked out for the majority of the consultation. I don’t really remember leaving. I got in my car and sobbed the entire way home. Negative thoughts swirled in my mind.
After getting a day to process I found I had been hit by a trigger. I had the realization that this was exactly what I had been reading about. A few more days lead me to piece together what events caused the reaction of blanking out, and intense emotional suffering. It came from parental neglect in my healthcare I had growing up. Anytime I was really sick, had an expensive hospital bill, or needed expensive dental work, I heard often how much it was a nuisance and burden to deal with. How much of an inconvenience I was causing financially. These voices had crept into the back of my psyche from repetition and told me I wasn’t worth care and attention. I knew this was a lie. If I was going to live a healthier and happier life I was going to have to fix the messages stuck inside me.
After putting the pieces together, I had remembered that this wasn’t the first time I have frozen up and experienced a myriad of powerful emotional states against my will. Different situations and causes, but because of reading the books I had, this dental visit was the first time I could recognize what was happening to me, piece together my emotions from it afterward, and then place where it came from. This event made me think about other incidents and one stood out the most. One in particular that always puzzled me.
I busted out into a tickle “fight” that lead to chasing and more aggressive behavior with my boyfriend. I wound up on the bed with having a knee on each side of my torso sitting on top of me with my arms pinned down. When I realized I couldn’t get out of this situation, mass panic broke out and I started hyperventilating, yelled stop, ran into the bathroom. I locked the door behind me. As I sat on the cold floor in the dark room frozen unable to speak with tears streaming down my face. His fingers appeared from the bottom of the door and I rested my hand on his. We both sat there quietly not knowing what happened or what to do. At the time PTSD was something I only associated with veterans returning from war.
I had often thought back on this situation confused because my boyfriend had never hurt me or had given me a reason to not trust him. This intense reaction to things where I was not really in danger had happened before, but not to this extent. It had been smaller and more subtle like when a shirt collar was too tight, or when a roller coaster ride was over and I was still pinned in my seat, or when I got shoved into a fake coffin at a Halloween party and forced to stay in it longer then I wanted. I had finally put it together. This was my body over reacting to multiple instances it had held on to from past childhood abuse.
These small events were throwing my brain and body back into a familiar time in my past where I had to fight or flight to survive. It felt very embarrassing not putting the pieces together until I had made it all the way to twenty-six. Eight years had passed since I left my life with the parent who regularly abused me, yet its ramifications were still following me around. That wasn’t my life anymore. I wasn’t in danger. It was time to figure out how to make myself feel safe and convince my brain I am.
Working Towards Recovery
Figuring out my triggers was the first step of my recovery. There were a lot. I’ll save time and say feeling a lack of ownership of my body is my main trigger. Abuse can make victims ashamed of themselves for allowing it to happen. I often felt weak for not speaking up or stopping the behavior. I often felt my body got heavier in weight as a way to ensure my future safety.
In my readings on trauma recovery, there were many suggestions on the path to healing. Mindfulness meditation, healthy diet, proper sleep, and finding something to connect with my body (essentially an exercise) were regularly mentioned as helpful in my research. I took some time to figure out the first few, but the hardest was finding an exercise I liked and could stick with. Most of my research recommended yoga and tai chi, but after trying it, it just didn’t appeal to me.
I had tried CrossFit when I was 19 for a few months, and while I enjoyed some of it, I found that it was really tough to recover from, I was often injured, and it was hard keeping up with the multitude of variety the workouts consisted of. I did enjoy the part where I worked with the barbell though. My partner and I joined a gym in 2016 with hopes to find a program they offered to get us in general shape, but that didn’t work out. We stumbled through fitness magazines, podcasts, and YouTube videos to find something that made sense. We finally came across the highly recommended and well-reviewed book Starting Strength Basic Barbell Training by Mark Rippetoe. We both started the program in early November 2017. I had some hiccups in illness, got frustrated and “quit” at one point, but finally came back around to it very seriously May 2018. In July 2018 after oral surgery I got more serious about it, and got a coach as I was coming to the end of my novice phase.
Mind-body connection in the form of exercise was the top repeated recommendation in my research on recovering from PTSD. I finally found something I enjoyed and felt I could stick with. However, this was far from simply exercise. I was training. I could measure my progress, set goals, and there was a coach to help with my individual issues. It gave me something to work towards and put the other important PTSD recovery tools into a priority and function. If I am not getting adequate rest, nutrition, and being mindful during lifts, progress doesn’t go as well.
Before training, failure was something I often found unacceptable. This made my life rather boring. I would only gravitate to new things I thought I would be successful in, or that I thought would have a favorable outcome. It was really hard for me to fail during my training. Doing movements wrong, dropping the bar because things were too heavy, and getting back under the bar, even so, all contributed to learning how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. This has been pivotal to PTSD recovery, as it has helped me be able to sit uncomfortably with my triggers when they arise and work with them, instead of stuffing them away.
The funny thing is, I probably would have told you that I was comfortable with failure before I started training hard. I would have said that I was fine with being uncomfortable. I found that what I really did was set myself up to not to fail or be uncomfortable. I can clearly recall in my training one particular time where I was trying to squat and I just could not get the movement right. I wasn’t getting to depth, my knees were doing crazy things, and remember thinking how everyone was probably looking at me in pity. I imagined the other gym goers saying to themselves, “poor girl, can’t even squat 80lbs correctly.” I gave up, went to the treadmill (which is something I detest most, but it’s easy to do, right?) and pitied myself. But back to the barbell I eventually went.
Learning to fail and being friends with the uncomfortable has brought adventure and mystery back to my life. I’ll try things I never thought I would. I am more than OK truly laughing at myself now, and learning from a challenging experience. This has made my life more enjoyable and has brought a sense of adventure back. The mental shift acquired by coming back to the barbell after facing a setback has helped me re-frame all perceived challenges that come my way.
My Body Is Capable of Strength, and I Own It
During recovery and throughout most of my life, I often found myself asking several questions quite frequently. Mostly after flashbacks and bad dreams of abuse, I would ask, “Why did I not stop it? Why did I just stand there? Why didn’t I just run away? Why didn’t I fight back harder?”
It is hard to explain the joy that comes when you lift a weight that used to feel “heavy”, but that same weight has come to feel “light”. Getting strong physically increased feeling safe in my body. It made me believe that I will have a chance to fight back should I experience abuse again. As Rippetoe says, “Strong people are harder to kill than weak people and more useful in general.” The comfort that strength brings for my PTSD triggers is priceless. Knowing that I can change how the story ends if it happened to me now brings me peace.
There is a certain quietness that comes right before I am about to move a heavy barbell. Heavy weight gives me no choice but to focus on the task at hand. As the bar got heavier, I found my ability to go into my body and focus on its needs increase. This ability to quite myself, focus and listen as I command it to perform has followed me outside of the platform. Essentially, strength training has contributed to a new connection to my body. The knowledge that I have control of it.
One day I was talking with my coach and she told me to go ahead and deadlift 225lbs. My programming was off for that day, and my previous lift had felt too light. I didn’t think there was anything special about that number at the moment other than feeling cool about having two 45lb plates on each side of the bar. After I lifted it, I teared up, got my stuff together and went to my car, and cried. It was tears of freedom and joy. I had done something I never thought I would work too so quickly. I felt strong, safe, and that my abuser would never be able to touch me again.
Since moving to train for strength, my anxiety, depression, and PTSD triggers have become dramatically better. I have a weird day every now and then, like when I had to learn to wear my belt, but nothing has made progress in my mental health like strength training. Strength training works to get you strong but it has so many other benefits. When I started I could barely do any of the four lifts with an empty bar. My current totals are 225lb squat, 82.5lb press, 128lb bench, and 235lb deadlift. I am strong and will continue to get stronger. I am whole. When people comment about my humor and joy today, I know it comes from a real place. I have lost almost 40lbs total from my lifetime heaviest weight in which was before my recovery process, and several inches and pant sizes. The recomposition my body has undergone so far are amazing.
Strength training has ignited a calling to become a coach and help others change their lives through the barbell like it has mine. Having a strong body develops many positive changes besides mental health, and I want to help others in their journey. I have well begun the extensive process of working towards my certification for strength coaching. If you are interested in strength training, I would love to help you start your journey and be your coach through it. Help me attain more experience and practice by clicking here to book your first free training session.