I’d like to add a disclaimer that this isn’t advice for sufferers of eating disorders or others who have negative relationships with exercise and / or body image. These are simply my own thoughts for things that have helped me.
There have been times in recent years, and even months where I have felt like my brain, my mind was exploding, deconstructing, self-destructing, and taking my nervous system with it. There was a point in my childhood at school where I was on a daily basis experiencing emotional, psychological, verbal abuse and on a few occasions physical attacks from my peers. This was mainly in the first two years of high school, and so the friends that I made after that either did not really know what was going on for me, and I didn’t know how to articulate it, so people assumed I was just quiet, shy and studious, which I was but a lot of the lack of speaking and problems socialising was because I was walking around severely traumatised. But something in me broke. The damage in those two years had been done, I was in such pain I didn’t want to live, I hated myself and had a distorted self image, and didn’t care anymore whether I lived, but this remained unexpressed so no one really knew, and I just quietly kept my head down, got good grades, got on with things, and tried to keep it together but the pain never went away and I never felt even moderately ‘ok’ inside even though appearances on the surface might have told a more positive story. The trauma had no where to go, I can only say that it felt, including physically with chronic pain that I couldn’t really explain to people, like my brain had ‘broken’, and was malfunctioning and this as an adult manifested as complex PTSD. Because I am a smart young woman, people didn’t really consider that this was the case, until several medical health professionals and consultants provided a diagnosis to this silent daily suffering. Eventually I just wasn’t coping and had to reach out for help and the help I have had over the past few years has enabled me to see a way forwards although some of it was gruelling work at the time. Your brain is not ‘broken beyond repair’ – it just sometimes takes a lot of incredibly hard work and support to get to a point of breakthrough.
I was never much of a person for being into exercise, and still I am not a fitness fanatic, but I do try to do something a few times a week, even if for a short amount of time. I have learned that exercise isn’t just about keeping the body fit, or boosting those ‘feel good’ chemicals. It also, importantly, helps to retrain the mind, in a positive direction, and helps keep mind and body ‘in step’ if you’ll pardon the pun, and I think helps to rewire new neural connections. I have noticed that people, even your ‘average’ person, who engage in some kind of fitness often become focussed, determined and press through their personal limitations even if this is on a modest and moderate level. When people reach a personal best there tends to have been a psychological barrier that was broken that enabled them to persevere, well before crossing a ‘finish line’. I don’t exercise as an escape or as a ‘fix’, but I do know that it is something that over time is improving my mental agility and speeding up my recovery from severe childhood trauma. This needs to be a balanced for some people though, who might take exercising to an extreme – I can safely say that I’m a bit too ‘lazy’ for that ever to be a problem for me.
There are times when I can sense aspects of the trauma ‘getting to me’ again. And I am reminded that what ‘broke’ within my mind as a child doesn’t need to stay in that irreparable state of heightened fear, pain, helplessness and distress. I no longer have to be in a psychological ‘free fall’ unable to stay grounded or to cope with the explosions in my brain that make no sense logically in my adult life where things aren’t an actual threat to me. There is a verse in Scripture that admonishes one to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:2). Scripture also elsewhere talks about the importance of physical exercise (but in the context of training ourselves in godliness and righteousness as even more important). There are also several passages that use analogies of spiritual discipline being like running a race, preparing for battle, being ready, focused and alert. I believe that although renewing our minds with Truth is the most important thing for us mentally, exercise also has an active role to play in moving towards psychological breakthrough. You are proving to your body and mind that you can do it, even when you feel you are otherwise malfunctioning. You are training your mind to persevere, to push through barriers, and to succeed. Even when I feel that sense of things resurfacing, like this evening, I don’t necessarily have to engage in exercise to know that it is there for me and it has already been of benefit – I can remember the times I have persevered physically and mentally, I have pressed through I did overcome, and what seems insurmountable psychologically in relation to trauma is put in its place as I take my thoughts captive (as the Bible says taking thoughts captive ‘ in obedience to Christ’) and exercise my mental agility to push through and take control and work towards recovery, mental strengthening and over time, a better quality of life.