How Weight Lifting Helped One Writer Work Through Her PTSD
When personal trainer and former competitive weight lifter Laura Khoudari experienced a traumatic incident that left her with PTSD, her response was to get back to the gym and train as hard as possible. She was participating in three sports, sometimes going to two training sessions per day.
"When I was living with trauma, I was using [training] as a coping skill but in a non-healthy way. I was training all the time like I was preparing for battle because I wanted to be invincible against an invisible threat," Khoudari recalls
From the outside, it seemed like Khoudari was just crushing it, but she was actually having a pretty normal post-traumatic stress disorder response: hyper arousal of the body and brain. "I wasn't resting. It was a compulsion," she says. Her body finally caught up with her. She severely injured her back overtraining and couldn't go near a barbell for months.
Finally, desperate to heal her mind and body, Khoudari started her own research into how trauma impacts the body and how strength training could be a healing practice for people who've experienced trauma. The result is her forthcoming book, a memoir combined with practical guidance, Lifting Heavy Things: Healing Trauma One Rep at a Time.
Khoudari writes that she now approaches strength training differently: "I train to feel my body, uniting my breath to reps and focusing on what it feels like inside as my body moves against the resistance of the weight."
Khoudari's theory is that this embodied approach to weight lifting can help those living with PTSD cultivate a sense of safety in their own bodies. Strength training can also provide certain direct physical benefits: building muscle is associated with better sleep, for instance, and insomnia is a common trauma symptom, Khoudari notes.
Today, Khoudari is both a certified personal trainer and a trauma practitioner, who offers trauma-informed training to other who have experienced trauma and those who work with them — physical therapists, personal trainers, and those in mental health.
We spoke via Zoom earlier this month about her research and her experience with strength training as an embodied movement practice that has helped her heal from her own trauma and help other trauma survivors.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What is it that you find healing and empowering about weight lifting and strength training?
I think any movement practice can be a healing practice — it's about how you approach it. Strength training really resonates with me. It's something I suggest folks try for a bunch of reasons. First of all, we know all the good health benefits of strength training. We know it's also good for your blood pressure, your bone density, your posture — which is often affected by trauma. And it can be very empowering to feel how strong you are.
How would you describe how it feels to lift weights as an embodied movement practice?
While I'm doing it, it's more like a meditation, so a mindfulness practice. So I'm being with it no matter what it is. It's like learning to find joy being in my body. Sometimes it's joyful, sometimes it's really uncomfortable. And I'm just getting really curious with myself and making time to check in. How I train now really changes based on what I need, and where I am in my life. Yesterday it was a lot of slow split squats. Right now my goals for training are to keep moving. I'm so busy and under so much stress for the next two months, I just want to work out three days a week and keep the pain away and get really grounded.
A lot of people still really have trouble conceptualizing the mind-body connection. Can you describe how it is that trauma can manifest physically?
The mind-body connection is so funny. People see it as these two separate things, and they have "a connection," but you know, your mind is in your body. So I don't really see it as separate, I see it as one. When you feel physical pain, your brain is telling you you feel pain. That's your mind getting information from parts of your body and your nervous system.
So yes, trauma shows up in the body. Chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines, fibromyalgia, a lot of autoimmune disorders, and IBS are some of the ways it can show up. Think about how when you're really tense because someone is stressing you out, you're doing a lot with your mind, but maybe your low back is also really tight, or your shoulders are up at your ears. That's your body responding to your mind.
And it goes the other way, I could ask you to check in and maybe let your shoulders come down away from your ears, and you may notice you also feel a little lighter. You can help your state of mind by adjusting what your body is doing, which I think is a lot more helpful than me saying, "Calm down!"
You write that at a certain point while you were dealing with PTSD you felt triggered by doing yoga, which is surprising because so many people see yoga as the mindful, or embodied, exercise. So how do you explain to people that really any movement practice can be triggering or therapeutic depending on the approach?
The thing is that yoga the way I think most Westerners do it, is not a particularly embodied practice. My understanding is the popular super athletic type of yoga is a far cry from the original yoga which is really about linking breath to movement and the discomfort of staying still. It's actually that stillness that can be really hard for people with trauma.
[Yoga is] really helpful for a lot of people, but not for everyone. And being embodied, or moving mindfully, can really be done with any movement, it just really has to do with where your focus is. Weight lifting seems pretty natural to me, since a lot of coaches will cue you to how [a movement] should feel. That means you're already paying attention to the part of you that's moving. If you're focusing on executing a movement by focusing on your muscles as you move, how is that any different from focusing on your muscles while you're doing a vinyasa flow? For me, the moment was when I realized, oh my god, a single-leg Romanian deadlift is the same movement as Warrior III. So why can't I bring a yoga-like focus to my Romanian deadlifts?
I was surprised to read that a common PTSD response is to disassociate from a certain part of your body or muscle groups. You write that it's the body's way of saying "too much, too fast, too soon. I can't process all this information." What should trauma survivors, or people who work with them, know about this phenomenon?
Essentially if the person is having a hard time getting in touch with a certain muscle group, really pay attention to that part of the body. If you're a personal trainer and someone is having trouble getting full hip extension, for example, you might have them do a glute bridge and hold it. If they are revved up like they are doing boot camp from doing that isometric hold, then dial it back. That's a sign that the nervous system is getting really stressed out by this.
We absolutely want to work hard, but we don't want to overwhelm the nervous system. You need to be feeling good and safe to make those changes happen, even the physiological ones.
Can you describe how people with trauma might approach training as part of their overall treatment for PTSD?
If you're working with a really great counselor, you're doing the talking and thinking part of working through your trauma, but maybe you still don't feel safe in your own body, then what you want to be doing is some bottom-up processing in the gym. That may be just collecting information and bringing it to talk with your counselor about later. So if you are training and you notice that when you are doing a pushing movement it feels really good — maybe it's even a little scary how good it feels — that's really important information. But maybe you do a pushing movement and feel triggered. So you spend time having that experience and then talking about it in therapy and that can really help.
If a client came to you manifesting trauma as you were, training really hard all the time, how would you guide them to harness that feeling but in a healthier way?
I don't think there's anything wrong with crushing it, if you're staying in your body while you're doing it. So if somebody tells me: "I want to flip tires!" Then OK. But if they go to flip those tires and I can see they're looking everywhere, they're not controlling their body, I'm going to cue them to [check-in with how the movement feels] rather than seeking catharsis and checking out.
But if I'm cueing you to actually pay attention while you're doing it, you will reap way more benefits, grounding and processing what made you want to do that action, and you will have trained better movement patterns and your muscles are going to get stronger than if you kind of weren't paying attention and also really overdoing it — which is just exhausting.
I was really struck by what you wrote about how we're now at a point where pretty much everyone has experienced some level of trauma in the past year of the pandemic.
I think it's really important for people to think about this as we are returning to gyms and life, that yes, go ahead and work hard, but also be gentle with yourself. You may notice that it is harder than it was to be in a room full of people working out and that's your nervous system trying to keep you safe. It doesn't necessarily understand yet that maybe it is safe to be there.
Maggie Mertens is a journalist based in Seattle, covering gender, culture, health, and sports.