“The breaks give your nervous system a chance to settle down,” said Ms. Khoudari, who has also completed coursework in body-oriented trauma therapy and become a leading advocate of lifting as a form of healing. “When we’re dealing with trauma, our nervous system generally has less capacity for stress, and also less resilience,” she continued. “And so you can use strength training to push on the edge of how much stress you can take.” Over time, this can expand our window of tolerance.
For this reason, Dr. Whitworth and others said weight lifting might be a helpful tool for people undergoing exposure therapy, during which therapists encourage patients to focus on their traumatic memories for short, controlled increments — not unlike the cyclic nature of strength training. Over time, this exposure can defuse the memories as well as the related physical stress.
“The idea is that they may be really anxious at first,” said Dr. Whitworth. But “over time, patients start to process the fact that those memories and feelings are not dangerous.”
Pairing this therapy with high-intensity exercise such as weight lifting, he said, might be “particularly beneficial.”
For many people with trauma, weight lifting also helps them feel at ease in their bodies. As Ms. Rooney explained, “Bodies are often the harbingers of trauma and the holders of trauma,” which leads many people to experience a kind of mind-body disconnect. For example, if someone has experienced a physical trauma relating to their torso, they may feel detached from that part of their body as a coping mechanism. But weight lifting can help to reconnect the mind and body.
Take the back squat, Ms. Rooney said, in which lifters hinge at the hips and knees while resting a weight on their shoulders. “There’s something about having, for example, a barbell, on your back that’s like, ‘Whoa, suddenly I can feel my spine. I can feel the back of my body. And I don’t remember the last time I felt the back of my body,’” she said.
Danielle Friedman is a journalist in New York City and the author of “Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World.”