Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a prominent mental health problem that can develop after exposure to life-threatening and highly distressing events such as military combat, accidents, assault, a difficult childhood, or natural or human-caused disasters. These traumatic events can affect your present health by triggering emotional and physical reactions that can make you more prone to different health conditions, including heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. While antidepressants and talk therapy are often touted as the preferred methods to overcoming PTSD, there is mounting evidence that suggests that aerobic exercise may also serve as an effective treatment option.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5, the diagnosis of PTSD is characterized by four broad symptom clusters. These include:
- The intense reliving of the traumatic event through disruptive memories and nightmares
- Avoidance of reminders of the event
- Negative cognitions and mood
In addition to these characteristics, people suffering from PTSD also have signs of impaired cognitive performance, alterations in brain structure and function, loss of productivity, and major chronic diseases, including diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome. Oftentimes, PTSD patients get less physical activity than before their trauma periods, which can contribute to poor health due to sedentary behavior.
Exercise, Health, and Trauma Relief
Because psychological and pharmacological treatments for PTSD often carry the burden of stigma, cost, motivation, and access to care, exercise can serve as a viable treatment alternative. Exercise is low cost, widely accessible, and doesn’t come with the negative connotations associated with traditional approaches to mental health treatment.
Both physical activity and exercise are beneficial to improving overall health. Physical activity, which refers to any bodily movement including walking, household or occupational activities, sport, and cycling, is beneficial for improved balance, coordination, musculoskeletal strength, and aerobic fitness. Regular exercise, which is a planned, structured, and repetitive form of physical activity, has significant health benefits, as it can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity and improve mental health conditions. In fact, research suggests that aerobic exercise, is an effective treatment for depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia through both physiological and psychological mechanisms and may be comparable or superior to other common treatments, such as psychotherapy and pharmacology.
In his book ‘The Body Keeps The Score’, renowned trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk discusses his findings from over three decades of working with trauma patients. His research discovered that traumatic stress rearranges the brain’s wiring, more specifically areas dedicated to pleasure, engagement, control, and trust. His studies found that these areas can be reactivated through innovative treatments including movement therapies such as yoga and exercise, neurofeedback, mindfulness techniques, and play.
Trauma survivors often feel hopeless and helpless and many avoid getting professional help because they either don’t trust or don’t have access to prescription drugs or talk therapy to get better. While pharmacological and psychological treatments have proven effective, exercise and physical activity have also been shown to be powerful in helping trauma patients improve symptoms, heal and reclaim their lives.