I wrote a post a few months ago about how working out helped me in my trauma recovery journey, and I got a few questions asking how specifically to maximize your workout to heal from trauma. One of the specific ways in which working out has helped me in trauma recovery is that I was able to connect to my body better.
Many trauma survivors have the experience of feeling disconnected from their bodies. This ranges from severe dissociative episodes, to, at the less severe end of the spectrum, lacking in kinesthetic awareness - that's big words for awareness of how your body moves and being able to control it. Movement, particularly strength training, has helped with this. Here are my top three tips on how to tune in to your body during your workout, and as you apply these skills in movement sessions, you'll find they come more easily at other times.
Use a mirror during your workout and watch how your body responds. Mirrors are great for form checks, but a mirror can also help you to visibly observe how your body responds when you try to move a certain way. For example, if you're doing squats and see that your knees are falling in, and you start working on trying to press them out a bit, watch in the mirror and see how your body responds when you think about pressing them out. Early on, I found that my body often was not where I thought that it was. Being able to see it helped me get into my body.
Instead of trying to distract yourself from a workout, put your mind in the muscle, and notice the feelings in your body. Who hasn't wanted to engage in some mild dissociation during burpees? However, if you want to start to feel more embodied, try putting your mind into your body and feeling the sensations that are there. Maybe at first you try this just briefly, or for a rep or two, but gradually, you can work up to longer lengths of time. Maybe notice how your lungs feel, how your heartbeat feels, how your different muscles feel as you move through an exercise.
Notice one small part of your body instead of trying to feel everything. Sometimes in squats, I'll just focus on trying to press my whole foot into the ground. During a bicep curl, I might just concentrate on the feeling in that one muscle. If I'm doing skullcrushers, I may put all my attention towards my shoulders and their positioning.
A lot of this might sound like mindfulness, and in truth, it is. These are all exercises in mindfulness of your body, and putting your attention into your physical self. As with any time you try to concentrate on the present, you may find your mind tries to wander. That's fine, and completely normal! It doesn't mean your bad at this, it means you are a normal human with a mind that likes to tell you stories and grab your attention. So, when your mind starts to pull your focus, simply guide your attention back to what you were trying to pay attention to.
Trauma recovery is a long journey, not a single destination. The cool thing about that is that we can all keep practicing these skills all along the way. If you use any of these tips, or have some to add, I'd love to hear from you!