If you have been teaching group fitness, personal training or mind/body classes to the public there is no doubt that you have been teaching people with trauma and or PTSD. Trauma is a human experience and we will all be touched by varying degrees in our lifetime, some (generally those who’ve experienced severe and/or multiple traumas) will also develop PTSD. The requirements for workers in hospitals and recovery centres to be trauma-informed is now common place. The time has come for all other facilities that service the public, in particular through health and well-being (that’s us!) to understand the basics behind trauma-informed care to best serve our clients. Without this knowledge, we are inadvertently sabotaging the health and wellness goals of the very people we are trying to help.
Trauma-informed is based on awareness. Understanding why someone might be reacting in a particular way, how to make our clients feel safe, and how to avoid triggers by creating a trauma informed environment.A very important aspect of healing from trauma is referred to as bottoms-up processing or essentially through the body. Many psychotherapists and psychologists understand the circle of healing to include mind, body and spirit. In the fitness industry, we promote this every day. By adding in trauma-informed practices, as fitness professionals, we actually become an aid to ones overall healing.
The first point of reference we need to understand the basis of trauma-informed practices is how we interpret danger and/or a life threat. Our peripheral nervous system is split between our somatic and autonomic systems. The somatic being the messages and thereby actions we control in our body such as lifting our mug to take a sip of coffee. Our autonomic system represents everything that works on its own: breathing, digesting, heartbeat. The autonomic system then further splits out to parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Parasympathetic is also known as rest and digest. What this means is that our nervous system must be essentially calm and relaxed so we can perform important bodily functions such as sleep, digestion, moderate heart rate and deeper diaphragmatic breathing. These are also the functions of the body that are compromised in both trauma and chronic stress. Sympathetic is considered fight or flight. When this system is triggered our body gets ready for action, we bear down clenching our muscles, heart rate quickens, breath becomes shallow so we can react quickly and efficiently, like moving out of the way before we are hit by a bus.
What is interesting to note is that our brain doesn’t differentiate between real or imagined danger. After someone has experienced a traumatic event: car accident, natural disaster, war or any form of abuse (trauma is also subjective and can only be defined by the person who is experiencing it) memories or flashes of memory (as with PTSD) continually replay in the persons mind. Their bodies essentially become stuck in sympathetic nervous system, hypervigilant and ready for any perceived danger. This can lead to chronic stress, or for many chronic stress is creating this destructive feedback loop in the body and overtime the system will stop working. In other words, our natural reaction to stress is compromised. We either shut down and freeze or create situations of “over-reacting” to everyday stresses.
So what does this look like?
For someone who feels safe, eye-contact is easy and often followed by a smile. In the fitness environment, they appear to be following along (to the best of their ability) or engaging in dialogue, asking questions, they have generally “done this before”. They are operating from their rational brain (neo-cortex)
For someone who feels in danger, they are operating from their emotional brains (limbic centre). This includes our new students while they navigate the space and your instructions. This also explains why proprioception and coordination are more difficult. Understanding the fine balance between a healthy sympathetic nervous system, and someone who is able to feel comfort through discomfort vs. someone who quickly unravels when their feelings of control are compromised. What does this look like? Agitated movements, loud sighs or leaving before the class/session is complete. Remember – fight or flight.
Furthering this reaction is when someone experiences a life-threat situation. This is demonstrated by a lack of eye contact, dissociation or simply going through the motions until the session is done. They begin to shut down and operate from their primitive brain (brainstem). This is NOT fight or flight – this is freeze or simply nothing at all. The most challenging place to come back from, from a healing perspective.
Both danger and life-threat experiences are quickly created by our nervous systems based on our brains understanding of the situation. Again this is subjective and learned behavior. This is what is meant by “triggering” someone. This could be severe like a loud bang from the door or outside, to a cell phone going off in the middle of a class, to words, actions or a lack of choice given to the client.
Please keep the following points in mind to provide a trauma-informed environment:
- Be cognizant of the space: Do the doors shut with a bang, can people see in the windows, is it loud outside the room or subject for sudden noise? For many of these situations we can’t do much about them, however what we can do is provide a warning such as “the weight room is above us and from time to time people can be a little over zealous with the weights they are using.” If possible, place a note on the door to remind people to shut quietly or close the blinds on the windows if on the ground floor. For our students to relax they need to feel safe.
- Provide options: While teaching classes, provide as many options as you can, so they can decide the best course of action for themselves. Give students permission to rest when they need. The same can be done with personal training clients by involving them more and listening to their feedback as to what they like and don’t like about their routines. I know a fine line when still wanting to push them to their edge, but start to create an awareness to what edge you are pushing them.
- Watch your language: Create awareness to the words you are using. Notice if the majority of your cues are centered around negative words like don’t and stop. Create an environment of inclusivity and safety with your words.
- Be careful with touch and adjustments: We generally advise not to touch those suffering trauma, however, it is important to always ask your students and clients so they can decide. Give them the option of adjustments in every class and respect their decision. In personal training, consider where you are standing in relation to your client and your proximity of closeness. Again, always ask permission to touch.
- The student is in charge: Ask your students and clients for feedback, in particular around music and lighting. If they want the door open or the music lower they are asking for a reason. When people have experienced trauma their control has been taken away. By providing choice and listening to what they are asking us rather than us trying to convince them otherwise we are creating a safe and thereby healing environment for our students.
Unfortunately it is not a question of if we trigger someone, but when. Following a trauma-informed practice will help create a safe space for your clients/students and also help you develop your own sense of awareness and compassion making you a better group fitness instructor, mind/body instructor or personal trainer. Together, we can truly create change and provide healing in the fitness industry: mind, body and spirit.