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HCM People
Mariah Rooney

When people experience early life trauma it impacts their bodies and nervous systems. I became curious about how lifting weights could help them have the experience of strength


Tell us about Trauma Informed Weight Lifting
Some personal trainers say they feel like their clients’ therapist because of the trusting relationship they build up – people confide in them.

At Trauma Informed Weightlifting, we train them to be therapeutic within their scope of practice, including how to engage with a client who shows signs of trauma and how to make the gym spaces more inclusive.

We’ve found a real hunger for this and every training course we’ve run, since starting in 2020, has sold out. To date, we’ve trained around 600 people from a dozen countries.

The training appeals to personal trainers and sports coaches, as well as occupational therapists and mental health providers.

How does it work?
Trauma affects every aspect of human function, so treatment should holistically address the physical, emotional and social components of healing.

In Trauma Informed Weight Lifting, we talk about the idea of embodied metaphor and how certain movements or experiences can create shifts in our narratives. Science shows there’s a huge relationship between sensory processing and early traumatic experiences and this can impact many physiological factors, including muscle tone, coordination and balance.

For example, someone who has suffered abuse in their childhood might feel weak and their posture might be curled forward. It can be very empowering for a trauma survivor to deadlift, where they literally pull the weight up off the ground and come upright. Then they get to put the weight back down and walk away from it. They don't have to keep carrying it, like they have carried the weight of their trauma.

In time, they start to feel strength along the back of their bodies and then start to carry themselves more upright, which can translate into them looking and feeling more confident and becoming more present in, and connected with, their bodies.

When someone learns to back squat, they also have to learn how to bail, to listen to their body and get out of a movement if they’re not able to complete it. This also builds self trust, which they may not have experienced before. They learn they can get out of the situation if they need to and it's going to be OK. This is very important for people who have not felt safe in their own bodies.

What is the background to you developing Trauma Informed Weight Lifting?
I was working as a psychotherapist at a trauma centre in Massachusetts and used trauma informed yoga, meditation and somatic exercises in my practice, while competitively weightlifting in my spare time. I started to see how the three overlapped and thought the formulas used for yoga could also work within weightlifting with some adaptations, to help people who have experienced trauma.

When people experience early life trauma it impacts their bodies and their nervous systems, so I became curious about how lifting weights could help people have the experience of strength in their body.

My therapy practice was very bodycentric and nervous system-informed, which I thought was a strong foundation to create a modality. I partnered with a weightlifting coach and we developed it together.

Because trauma impacts people across a variety of domains: the body, the nervous system, relationships and how they move through the world, when people are recovering from trauma a combination of approaches are needed and talking therapy alone is rarely enough.

What does your training course cover?
Environmental factors come into it, to help people feel safer in the gym. Some trainers might have no control over the music, or the lighting, but they can still be very thoughtful about how they tend the relationship with their client and understand the many ways trauma can manifest for someone.

For example, if someone keeps cancelling, or they show up late, traditionally those behaviours would be labelled as lazy, or unmotivated. However, we take the stance that all behaviour makes sense and encourage trainers and coaches to find answers to the “why” instead of applying socially constructed and pathologising labels.

We train instructors to approach the situation with curiosity, saying to the client: “I’m wondering if something is making this really tough for you and if we could figure it out together, maybe there is a barrier I could remove?” It's a huge shift in perspective to hold the stance of curiosity.

For those who can influence the environment, there's a lot which can be done. If an operator wants to be trauma-informed, they need to be welcoming of people who’ve historically been left out of fitness environments.

For example, gender inclusive bathrooms can help make trans and gender non-conforming folks feel more safe and included.

What should trainers do if they’re interested in training in this modality?
We have both foundational training and a more in-depth certificate programme. The courses are online, and we also offer in-person training if operators want to host it. We’re currently talking to two big fitness companies that have sites all over the world.

We're not strict about who comes through the training. Many come from the mental health sector, wanting a better understanding of how to support their clients and to get more insight into working with them in a radically different way.

More: www.TIWL.org

Trauma Informed Weight Lifting: The Science
Trauma-informed Weight Lifting is undertaking a series of research studies to understand the scientific benefits of lifting weights. Two studies were published last year and there will be more this year

One of the research programmes was interview-based and involved a mixed-gender group of 46 trauma survivors, who had been weightlifting for at least three months and ranged in age from 23 to 68-years.

The results were encouraging and showed lifting weights, combined with the sense of belonging in a gym community, can be transformational for trauma survivors, leading to healing and post-traumatic growth.

Trauma commonly presents in a sense of disembodiment and social isolation. It leads to the individual disconnecting from their body, which feels unsafe because a dysregulated nervous system gets easily triggered, sending alarm signals to the brain, leading to a cascade of anxious thoughts.

As a result, trauma survivors can lose the ability to listen to their bodies and fail to recognise physical cues, such as tiredness and hunger. This can lead to negative coping strategies, such as disordered eating, substance and alcohol use.

Another symptom of trauma is dissociation, when the mind disconnects from reality, so individuals struggle to feel present and grounded. In short, trauma survivors aren’t connected to their bodies and are tortured by their minds.

The research shows that weightlifting can heal the trauma by reigniting the mind-body connection. As research participants focused on their breathing while they lifted, they spoke of feeling internal sensations again and feeling the contraction of the muscles in connection with the breath.

Strength in the body was found to be empowering in itself – individuals spoke of the feeling being transformational – and it also led to increased mental resilience. Participants also found they were better able to stop their minds wandering off to catastrophic thoughts, and their feelings of self-worth and self-esteem improved.

This led to secondary benefits, such as being more motivated to follow a healthy routine and habits around eating, sleeping, exercise and social connection, which led to healing and making them more proactive about making positive changes.

Furthermore, the gym community gave them support through social connection and helped them reshape the way they perceived themselves, their lives and their world.

Weightlifting can heal trauma by reigniting the mind-body connection / photo: Shutterstock / Dusan Petkovic
Trauma affects every aspect of human function, so needs holistic solutions Credit: photo: Shutterstock / Thanumporn Thongkongkaew
All behaviour makes sense and needs to be approached with curiosity, not judgement Credit: photo: Shutterstock/Rawpixel.com
 


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SELECTED ISSUE
Health Club Management
2024 issue 5

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Leisure Management - Mariah Rooney

HCM People

Mariah Rooney


When people experience early life trauma it impacts their bodies and nervous systems. I became curious about how lifting weights could help them have the experience of strength

Rooney has a psychotherapy background photo: Trauma Informed Weight Lifting
Trauma affects every aspect of human function, so needs holistic solutions photo: Shutterstock / Thanumporn Thongkongkaew
All behaviour makes sense and needs to be approached with curiosity, not judgement photo: Shutterstock/Rawpixel.com

Tell us about Trauma Informed Weight Lifting
Some personal trainers say they feel like their clients’ therapist because of the trusting relationship they build up – people confide in them.

At Trauma Informed Weightlifting, we train them to be therapeutic within their scope of practice, including how to engage with a client who shows signs of trauma and how to make the gym spaces more inclusive.

We’ve found a real hunger for this and every training course we’ve run, since starting in 2020, has sold out. To date, we’ve trained around 600 people from a dozen countries.

The training appeals to personal trainers and sports coaches, as well as occupational therapists and mental health providers.

How does it work?
Trauma affects every aspect of human function, so treatment should holistically address the physical, emotional and social components of healing.

In Trauma Informed Weight Lifting, we talk about the idea of embodied metaphor and how certain movements or experiences can create shifts in our narratives. Science shows there’s a huge relationship between sensory processing and early traumatic experiences and this can impact many physiological factors, including muscle tone, coordination and balance.

For example, someone who has suffered abuse in their childhood might feel weak and their posture might be curled forward. It can be very empowering for a trauma survivor to deadlift, where they literally pull the weight up off the ground and come upright. Then they get to put the weight back down and walk away from it. They don't have to keep carrying it, like they have carried the weight of their trauma.

In time, they start to feel strength along the back of their bodies and then start to carry themselves more upright, which can translate into them looking and feeling more confident and becoming more present in, and connected with, their bodies.

When someone learns to back squat, they also have to learn how to bail, to listen to their body and get out of a movement if they’re not able to complete it. This also builds self trust, which they may not have experienced before. They learn they can get out of the situation if they need to and it's going to be OK. This is very important for people who have not felt safe in their own bodies.

What is the background to you developing Trauma Informed Weight Lifting?
I was working as a psychotherapist at a trauma centre in Massachusetts and used trauma informed yoga, meditation and somatic exercises in my practice, while competitively weightlifting in my spare time. I started to see how the three overlapped and thought the formulas used for yoga could also work within weightlifting with some adaptations, to help people who have experienced trauma.

When people experience early life trauma it impacts their bodies and their nervous systems, so I became curious about how lifting weights could help people have the experience of strength in their body.

My therapy practice was very bodycentric and nervous system-informed, which I thought was a strong foundation to create a modality. I partnered with a weightlifting coach and we developed it together.

Because trauma impacts people across a variety of domains: the body, the nervous system, relationships and how they move through the world, when people are recovering from trauma a combination of approaches are needed and talking therapy alone is rarely enough.

What does your training course cover?
Environmental factors come into it, to help people feel safer in the gym. Some trainers might have no control over the music, or the lighting, but they can still be very thoughtful about how they tend the relationship with their client and understand the many ways trauma can manifest for someone.

For example, if someone keeps cancelling, or they show up late, traditionally those behaviours would be labelled as lazy, or unmotivated. However, we take the stance that all behaviour makes sense and encourage trainers and coaches to find answers to the “why” instead of applying socially constructed and pathologising labels.

We train instructors to approach the situation with curiosity, saying to the client: “I’m wondering if something is making this really tough for you and if we could figure it out together, maybe there is a barrier I could remove?” It's a huge shift in perspective to hold the stance of curiosity.

For those who can influence the environment, there's a lot which can be done. If an operator wants to be trauma-informed, they need to be welcoming of people who’ve historically been left out of fitness environments.

For example, gender inclusive bathrooms can help make trans and gender non-conforming folks feel more safe and included.

What should trainers do if they’re interested in training in this modality?
We have both foundational training and a more in-depth certificate programme. The courses are online, and we also offer in-person training if operators want to host it. We’re currently talking to two big fitness companies that have sites all over the world.

We're not strict about who comes through the training. Many come from the mental health sector, wanting a better understanding of how to support their clients and to get more insight into working with them in a radically different way.

More: www.TIWL.org

Trauma Informed Weight Lifting: The Science
Trauma-informed Weight Lifting is undertaking a series of research studies to understand the scientific benefits of lifting weights. Two studies were published last year and there will be more this year

One of the research programmes was interview-based and involved a mixed-gender group of 46 trauma survivors, who had been weightlifting for at least three months and ranged in age from 23 to 68-years.

The results were encouraging and showed lifting weights, combined with the sense of belonging in a gym community, can be transformational for trauma survivors, leading to healing and post-traumatic growth.

Trauma commonly presents in a sense of disembodiment and social isolation. It leads to the individual disconnecting from their body, which feels unsafe because a dysregulated nervous system gets easily triggered, sending alarm signals to the brain, leading to a cascade of anxious thoughts.

As a result, trauma survivors can lose the ability to listen to their bodies and fail to recognise physical cues, such as tiredness and hunger. This can lead to negative coping strategies, such as disordered eating, substance and alcohol use.

Another symptom of trauma is dissociation, when the mind disconnects from reality, so individuals struggle to feel present and grounded. In short, trauma survivors aren’t connected to their bodies and are tortured by their minds.

The research shows that weightlifting can heal the trauma by reigniting the mind-body connection. As research participants focused on their breathing while they lifted, they spoke of feeling internal sensations again and feeling the contraction of the muscles in connection with the breath.

Strength in the body was found to be empowering in itself – individuals spoke of the feeling being transformational – and it also led to increased mental resilience. Participants also found they were better able to stop their minds wandering off to catastrophic thoughts, and their feelings of self-worth and self-esteem improved.

This led to secondary benefits, such as being more motivated to follow a healthy routine and habits around eating, sleeping, exercise and social connection, which led to healing and making them more proactive about making positive changes.

Furthermore, the gym community gave them support through social connection and helped them reshape the way they perceived themselves, their lives and their world.

Weightlifting can heal trauma by reigniting the mind-body connection / photo: Shutterstock / Dusan Petkovic

Originally published in Health Club Management 2024 issue 5

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