Monday, 16 May 2011

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.


anthea said...

Thanks Luddsy - this is a really interesting and thoughtful post, and strikes a couple of notes for me. It's particularly interesting the observations about the link between physical balance and anxiety - I have a condition that results in very poor balance and impaired motor control, as well as limited spatial awareness, and I'm increasingly realising (and there has been some research on this) that the experience, particularly as a child, of not being able to know whether I'd fall over, or being able to judge distances or the speed of things coming towards me has had a huge impact on my anxiety levels.

Thank you also for realising that your ability levels aren't everyone's. Whilst I can and do exercise in some forms, and find that has a positive impact on my mental health, I've had a godawful experience with a counsellor who decided that the way to respond to me telling her that a lot of the physical movements she suggested weren't really possible for me was to just repeat the same things preceeded with the word "if you can". Ugh. I'd caution anyone working in this type of setting to also remember that pushing disabled people (and you won't always know who is disabled) to exercise or move their bodies in particular ways can be a huge trigger, and have previously been used as a tool of abuse, so to tread with care.

Moz said...

Thanks for the reminder. Most dramatically for me was one partner who found she could stop their anti-depressants if she exercised regularly (almost daily). Given the side-effects from the medication she was willing to put up with quite a lot to get the (aerobic) exercise fix.
I'm off my bike at the moment with a back injury and it has made me noticably more irritable. Partly from persistent pain, but the negative circles from losing both exercise and transport (I had forgotten how much freedom comes from a bicycle) I am still stuggling with.

LudditeJourno said...

Hey Anthea, yeah, awful example and good reminder. My Mum would be in WAY better shape today if, instead of thinking she had to "exercise" in weight bearing ways, anyone at all had recognised swimming would be ideal for her back as she was great at it and it allowed her muscles to move without inflicting pain. Grr.

Hey Moz, yeah, def agree about the benefits around mental health for exercise - and have similar experiences around cycling. I could NEVER have lived in London for 14 years if I'd not cycled, just too many people, too much traffic, too claustrophobic on public transport for me everyday.