Twenty-four hours ago I would have scrolled past this topic, however just yesterday I had some very relevant realisations.
This one comes with a content warning
re: invasive psychiatry
Context: I am 41 years old, have complex PTSD stretching back to early childhood abuse and emphasised by several DV relationships and most recently two back-to-back workplace harassment cases. I have just been released from a psychiatric institution where I underwent 12 courses of ECT to try and interrupt ongoing and pervasive suicidal ideation. I have a PhD in creative arts and my thesis was a semi autobiographical examination of memoir as a form of self surveillance. It got two special commendations. A excerpt was published in Text’s special issue on Trauma last October.
I’m experienced with dealing with trauma (17 years therapy), and taking about my progress. And I just met a new therapy named Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. It does as the name suggests (and will be expanded on lately).
So here’s my trauma-informed take on why I hate exercise:
My history with exercise has been shaped by my trauma, and it all coalesced during conversations with my partner while we drove from Wollongong to Sydney for my therapy yesterday. This is what I’ve realized:
1. All my attempts at team sports were during my school years during which I was regularly ‘kicked off’ teams for my behaviour. I went to a religious school, mostly, I believe, because they both ignored and enabled my mother’s abuses. I was regularly chastised (and often paddled or strapped – yep, one of those schools) for aggression and disruptive actions during training/ games. I’ve fantasised most of my adult life about joining a team sport but can’t get past the anxiety. Made the link yesterday that this is informed by both my teenage mirroring of my mother’s actions and what follows about anxiety and vulnerability.
2. During more stable periods of my life I have dabbled with yoga, both in groups and at home. I have purchased several packages of 10+ sessions, only to drop out after a couple of visits. It was only yesterday while taking about this that I became aware that what bothered me during yoga was how many of the poses mimic those I recognize from abuse. Many of the poses would trigger me into hyper vigilance and panic and (even at home) I would have panic attacks. Unfortunately the specifics of my trauma mean that I’m skilled at disguising panic attacks and routinely ignore pain and other signs that I need to slow down. I never took the option of using resting poses and regularly spent the final ‘relaxation’ part in full on panic. I stopped attending two different groups after instructors attempted to physically assist me into difficult poses with minimal warning. The vulnerability inherent in yoga turns out to be dangerous for my mental health.
3. Similarly, I have joined two different gyms but been unable to continue with the programs and dropped out (losing my membership fees). The first was a Fitness First kind of thing where I signed up for a PT. The trainer was young and female and I was immensely triggered by her ‘encouragement’. I’d be fine to start each session but as my heartrate increased, so would my panic symptoms. The hardest bit was getting changed after the sessions where the open spaces of the change room set off so much anxiety that I’d end up trying to cry in the showers without anyone hearing me. I suspect that the physical symptoms of exercise are so similar to panic that my brain confuses them. My second gym attempt was one of those women’s circuit gyms but I found it impossible to exercise in the eyelines of other women. I made up a story about a long term injury to get out of that membership because I was confused and ashamed of my inability to work out where people could see me.
4. My one semi-successful go at exercise was as a roller derby official. I found the Wollongong league, fully intending to play. Quickly realised that I felt more comfortable off the track as a skating referee. Suspect that the implied authority of the stripes helped me disguise/ control the panic induced by the exercise. Actually became quite an expert in the area (skating as Sintax), and ended up head refereeing games including up to the bronze finals of the national tournament in Adelaide. Unfortunately, what I now recognise as PTSD symptoms led to conflict with the two leagues that I skated with and I ended up mostly working independently. Between 2013 and 14, my mental health deteriorated. I was tournament head referee for a local tournament called 5×5, which involved 36 games over six months. During this, I found myself increasingly suffering from panic attacks while working games but was again unable to articulate or explain this to my peers and eventually retired from the sport.
5. I try to walk my dog regularly but spend much of the time in full on spatial vigilance. Haven’t been out alone since she got her hackles up at a strange man during a walk (this had never happened before). Luckily we have a very large yard for her to run in.
During the drive yesterday, I put all this together and realised that my engagement with exercise has been seriously hindered by my PTSD. My inability to adequately process cortisol has meant that almost every time my heartrate goes up, I have misread it as danger and panic.
During yoga, there were no opportunities for ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ and the low lighting and proximity to others prevented me from finding any perceived safety.
My favorite role on skates was outside pack referee, where super fast skating allowed me to use the ‘flight’ to work out the adrenalin. It was only when I moved to inside track roles (short bursts of skating and lots of standing still) that I really became uncomfortable.
And every second I spent in a gym, I was on high alert and ready to defend myself. Ditto, dog walking.
hile I’ve recently toyed with the idea of playing AFL or officiating cricket, after my realisations yesterday I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m probably never going to be able to relax and enjoy exercise.
Though, that being said, the psyc at the hospital tells me that ECT is actually a very good full-body workout.
(Yes, I also use humour as a defense – no I’m not planning on needing ECT again any time soon.)