The Power of Strength

A client’s husband walked in recently, while I was waiting for my client. I greeted him, assumed he was meeting her, and continued straightening up the studio.

He sat down and began chatting with me, inquiring about what it was that I actually did, and telling me how he was hoping to begin working with me in the new year so he could regain mobility and balance. At one point during our conversation, he said to me, “you know, there has been a huge change in my wife since she started working with you. Not only is she physically stronger, her confidence has improved and she is more secure with herself. It’s been a transformation.”

Physical strength and mental strength are not separate entities. When our physical self is challenged in a healthy, safe way, we feel more capable. Our ability to handle small set backs improves and we recognize we are stronger than we think.

This client in question (let’s call her Anne), had quite a few physical complications during her last pregnancy. She felt weak, in pain, and unsteady when she began seeing me.

Prior to her most recent pregnancy, she had suffered a miscarriage. It’s estimated that 30% of pregnancies will end in a miscarriage; however, surveys suggest the general population believes the number is much lower, leaving women who suffer from the loss of a pregnancy to feel alone.

As things progressed and she became stronger, her pain diminished. We began working on more complex skills, once her foundation was established. It’s not unusual for her to ask me during a session, “I can do that?” when I offer an exercise that is challenging, but not outside of her capabilities. “Yes,” I always reply with confidence, and as she completes whatever it is I have proposed, she begins to smile, just a little bit, as she puts a little more trust in herself.

The word trauma has two definitions, as defined by Google’s dictionary. The first is “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” This definition is more emotional or psychological in nature, suggesting that for an experience to be considered traumatic is personal- what one person considers deeply distressing may differ from what the person next to her considers deeply distressing, though we can all agree specific things, like witnessing a violent accident or experiencing emotional abuse and neglect would be disturbing to most people.

The second definition is more clear cut. Trauma is defined as physical injury. This can have elements of a disturbing experience attached to it, but it’s a little more obvious when a physical injury has occurred. People hold themselves differently and often have visible marks that let an outsider know they have experienced pain.

In a study conducted by Kilpatrick, et.al, out of 2,953 adults surveyed, 89.7% reported being exposed to at least one event that would be considered traumatic based on the DSM-5 criteria. (The DSM-5, for those of you that don’t follow psychology research, is the bible of psychological disorders and conditions). 30% of respondents had experienced 6 or more Criterion A event types. These include things like disasters, accidents/fires, combat or war zone exposure, physical or sexual assault, or witnessing dead bodies unexpectedly. Basically, a huge portion of the population has experienced something that could be considered traumatizing, and more than 1/4 have experienced multiple somethings that could be considered traumatizing.

If you think back over the course of your entire life, based on these statistics, there is a high likelihood that at some point you experienced something that brought you or someone you love into a potentially life threatening situation. If it isn’t an everyday occurrence, like abuse or neglect, we brush it off, think, “whew, that was close,” and are a little more careful. Sometimes, the event is more horrific and can’t be brushed off. It lingers, like a bad taste or a nightmare, at the edges of our reality until we deal with it in some way.

Our emotional self and our physical self are linked. As Bessel Van Der Kolk writes in “The Body Keeps the Score,” “When the brain’s alarm system is turned on, it automatically triggers preprogrammed physical escape plans in the oldest parts of the brain…The nerves and chemicals that make up our basic brain structure have a direct connection with our body.” After the alarm has sounded and the threat has been dealt with, most of us return to a calmer state, both emotionally and physically. However, in people that are considered traumatized, the alarm systems continue to go off, keeping these individuals living with the fear that the trauma will re-occur or experiencing PTSD.

When we change our physical self by getting stronger or more flexible, our body changes. When our body changes, our clothes fit differently and we are reminded regularly that we are not living in the past because our actual self is different than it was three months ago. As we become able to lift more weight or run up steeper hills, there is a nagging voice in the back of our brain that tells us we have moved past or through a plateau and are in a state of change. It enables us to feel more resilient, and begins to seep into other parts of our lives.

Anne, the client you met above, felt her confidence grow in realms outside of the gym. She tackled new goals at work and continued to find new ways to test her strength. Once she realized she could easily pick up her children and sprint up sand dunes, her perspective regarding strength in dealing with her every day life shifted.

In “The Art of Somatic Coaching,” author and psychologist Richard Strozzi-Heckler tells the story of using Aikido rolls to an executive struggling with confidence. “Learning to fall,” Strozzi-Heckler observes, “made him less afraid to fail.”

Think about what something like an Aikido roll teaches. It enables you to fall without fear of getting hurt. It teaches the spine to respond to a potentially physically traumatic situation by rounding and softening, only to lengthen and support you once the roll is completed so you can stand back up. You respond to the potential threat and then move through it and forward.

Anne sometimes jokes I am training her for the circus. She cartwheels, climb ropes, and balances on 2x4s. She jumps, crawls, and yes, rolls. She lifts heavy things, carries them, and sets them down.

The movements themselves don’t really matter. There are a number of physical skills that would elicit increases in strength and coordination. What matters for Anne is how the physical act of moving effects her outlook.

One of the most interesting aspects of physical skill training is you have to touch discomfort in order to improve. The physical discomfort is temporary, an effort of work or a sensation that may even be overwhelming the first time you approach it because you are using muscles in a different way, or your heart is working harder than it’s used to.

However, the next time you approach the same physical skill, the sensation of discomfort will be a little bit less. Whether this is because you are figuring out how to move in a slightly more efficient way or because your nervous system understands the skill isn’t going to harm you so it turns down the volume a little bit, I don’t know, but the ability to overcome something that feels uncomfortable, tolerate it, and recover from it is valuable.

Wrapped into all of this is overcoming fear. It seems silly to think of physical skill training as a way to approach fear, but every time you move in a way that is unfamiliar, your brain assesses whether there is a potential for physical harm. The ability to perform an Aikido roll, for instance, can seem very frightening unless it’s broken down into small, digestible steps. Flexing the spine, rolling over the shoulder (which is located precariously close to the neck), and essentially somersaulting is not a movement most of us practice in our every day lives. It is unfamiliar, and often scary. However, the sense of accomplishment you feel the first time you drop to a roll from a standing position after practicing all of the pieces is extremely rewarding. If you can learn how to roll or handstand or deadlift more than your bodyweight, emotional stress or loss becomes a little bit easier to handle.

Six years ago, I ran into a car while going too fast down a hill and around a garbage truck. More accurately, I collided with the driver’s side mirror. I remember realizing what was about to happen, thinking to myself, “that car and I are going to hit each other,” and I remember the moment directly after, as I laid on the ground assessing my body parts, trying to figure out if anything was seriously damaged, but I don’t remember the impact. My brain is consistent like that. If the potential physical trauma about to ensue could be life threatening, I have a gaping blank hole where specifics of the actual trauma should be.

Other than a little bruising and soreness, I was fine. My arm, however, never really felt the same. I began using it right away, but the area where my arm and the mirror connected felt different, as though the mirror had left behind a permanent, invisible scar.

Years passed, and I accepted that my arm would forever feel that way, the way we accept things about ourselves that seem unchangeable by anything other than an act from the divine. Two years ago, I began training in a system that was new to me. One of the exercises involved holding a dowel behind me, straightening my elbows, and moving the dowel away from my body.

This deceptively simple movement triggered all kinds of things the first time I did it. The sensation of both work and discomfort in my left arm was difficult to reconcile, and I remember thinking, “this can’t be good for me.”

The next day, my arm felt different, better, in fact, than it had since the unfortunate mirror incident. It still didn’t feel the same as the right arm, but there had been a definite shift.

As time wore on, the exercise became easier and my mobility improved, like things do when you work on them consistently. I added straight arm balances into my routine, and my sense of the left arm continued to shift until eventually, the sensation that had lingered was gone. My arm no longer felt heavy and unbalanced. It felt the same as my right arm.

Trauma stays with us, leaving scars that aren’t always visible from the outside. I think, too, trauma reminds us how little we actually control in the grand scheme of things. The one thing most of us do have a little bit of control over is physical strength and resilience. It takes work, but gaining physical resiliency can alter our entire self in a way that changes the trajectory of our lives.