Vicarious trauma and lifting weights

I am fortunate to be able-bodied.  Cycling has been my main mode of transport since being a teenager.  I do yoga and tai chi regularly, walk for pleasure, and lift weights two or three times a week to build and maintain upper body strength.

I’m aware of how lucky I am to have this privileged experience of my body.  I have friends with physical impairments who do not enjoy their bodies in the same way, and recovering from a cycling accident several years ago left me unable to walk without pain for three months, and unable to cycle for six.  I regained full movement in my left knee only after daily hours of painful yoga.

I also have a mother who does not have full motor control of half her body.  This means from age eight she has walked with a kind of staggering gait.  Throughout my life she’s experienced uncontrollable and near constant shaking and horrific back pain from being twisted and repeatedly landing on the side of her foot when she walks.  Now, she cannot walk at all.

Watching my mother struggle to participate fully in the world, not always succeeding at least partly due to these impairments, has been one of my motivations in being “embodied” in a way which celebrates physical skill or competency or strength or I’m not sure what to call it exactly.  One of the things I talked to Mum about after my cycling accident was fear.  Using crutches to go to the doctor to have my dressings changed every day, I was constantly terrified because the slightest knock would send me toppling over, my balance was so poor.  Which helped me recognise part of my mother’s withdrawal from the world has been about  feeling completely and utterly fragile whenever she left the house, because she was literally unstable on her feet.

The other reason these physical ways of being are so important to me is to do with self-care, and being able to continue to do work which centres on sexual and domestic violence.  Vicarious trauma, or carrying in your body experiences of harm which are told to you when you work with survivors and perpetrators of intimate violence, is a rarely explored phenomena.  It’s been my belief for a long time that exercise, blood flow, using my muscles in ways which force my body to heal and regenerate, enable me to continue to do difficult work around sexual and domestic violence.

So when I took a break about six weeks ago from working out, pumping iron, lifting weights, because I’ve been exhausted and wanted to boost my mineral levels with various herbal teas and supplements, it should not have surprised me what happened next.

The nettle tea (iron), B vitamins (stress) and St John’s Wort (stress) all did their bit.  Exhaustion recovered from, thanks very much.

The break from working out?  Aching pain in my shoulders and neck, every day.  Shooting pains in my right forearm and shoulder, whenever I spent anytime writing.  Lower back pain whenever I sat down.

Basically my body was holding onto stress I ordinarily release through lifting weights.  Such significant stress that yoga and cycling just wasn’t cutting it.

I’ve gone back to working out.  Within a week, all symptoms were gone, and my body is back to feeling flexible and pain-free.  I’m, quite honestly, astonished, at the extremity of this reaction.

I often advise women starting work in responding to or preventing sexual and domestic violence to exercise, to help manage the embodied impacts of vicarious trauma.  I guess the last couple of months has been about my body reminding me how important this can be – and how fortunate I am to have the privilege to be able to self-care in this way.

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One thought on “Vicarious trauma and lifting weights

  1. Kudos to you for the work that you do! I was interested to read that your work-related stress is relieved through exercise. Thank you for sharing 🙂

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