Of all the precursors to poor mental health, perhaps none is as impactful as trauma. As a category, trauma captures a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Hence, it is tautological that trauma negatively impacts a person’s sense of well-being. Indeed, the impact of trauma on mental health is pervasive. In this article, you will know more about the trauma and how boxing can help to recover from it.
Trauma is a significant cause of anxiety as the triggers reactivate brain circuitry related to the initial traumatic event. Trauma is debilitating and often results in depression and general inactivity for many people. Trauma can also result in psychosis-like symptoms such as dissociation as the brain attempts to process and make sense of the traumatic event.
A healing process will need to commence post the traumatic event. The bulk of this will naturally be psychotherapy and, where appropriate, psychopharmaceuticals to help the healing process. However, more experts are calling for exercise to be part of the treatment plan to help a person to get back on their feet (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008).
As discussed in earlier blogs, boxing is a modality that aligns well to be an additive component of mental-health treatment. Boxing fits into a broader category of exercise known as HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training). HIIT has a growing body of supporting evidence indicating its benefits for mental health (Martland, Mondelli, Gaughran, & Stubbs, 2020). The following are some key findings on HIIT and how these relate to addressing the impacts of trauma.
Trauma and Boxing: Focus
People who experience stress due to trauma are often on edge, their minds prepared for the fight or flight response. Humans are unique in that we don’t require danger to be clear and present to elicit the ‘danger response’- our minds can imagine the situation.
However, just as the mind can work against us, we can utilise our understanding of the brain to work for us. Boxing has some unique benefits as an exercise modality for reducing trauma-related stress.
As boxing has a skill component, the brain is activated away from thoughts of the imagined stressors and toward the new activity. Learning new movements results in a hormonal rush of norepinephrine arousing attention and dopamine focusing the attention toward goal behaviour. The drive toward goal-directed behaviour increases focus and improves one’s sense of well-being.
Trauma and Boxing: Energy
When we are stressed, cortisol signals increase glucose in the bloodstream. Increased cortisol is why stressed people often gain a spare tire around their mid-section as glucose unused will eventually become fat. Cortisol adds injury to insult as it increases protein breakdown for energy, resulting in muscle loss. Our bodies respond to the perceived stress as they would the stress of a famine. Once the event subsides, we store the extra glucose and protein breakdown as fat around our belly- protection against future famines.
The upshot is that you need an outlet for all the energy build up and boxing is a natural outlet as it is cardio-intensive and high impact. Boxing will increase calorie expenditure during exercise and decrease the chance of belly fat occurring after the event as the body utilises the additional cortisol in naturally responding to the fight or flight response.
Trauma and Boxing: Calm
Stress is a nasty bedfellow when it comes to memory. The brain wants the person to avoid the traumatic experience again; therefore, we have adapted to deeply recorded negative experiences. In addition, the increased cortisol can stop new memories from being encoded effectively – The neurons can’t be part of new circuitry. Ultimately it is hard to learn new material. Your brain has become obsessed with the trauma.
Through mindful attention to the development of the new skill, new memories are formed in an environment where external and internal distractions are minimised. Boxing classes not only have the skill component, activating new memories, but the non-threatening class environment naturally reduces stress enabling new memories to be formed.
Energy, calm, and focus are three of the most critical psychological markers that people should measure daily to keep on top of their mental health. For this reason, the Spartans App allows all of our members to have a daily check on these areas, graphing responses over time. However, the benefits of boxing at Spartans go well beyond just energy, calmness and focus.
An insidious effect of trauma is social isolation. Loneliness is one of our greatest perceived threats to survival. A cruel outcome of trauma is that it often isolates people, leaving them locked at home and in their minds as they avoid any traumatic triggers. Social isolation deepens the effects of trauma, such as depression, creating a negative cycle for mental health.
Boxing classes allow a person to interact with others in a safe environment. There is accountability to attending booked classes and a no-pressure environment of participation. The person feels a sense of community, safety and belonging. Having access to programmes at home, the person can start at their own pace, with some helpful prodding from the gym and systematically transition into class.
In summary, boxing is an effective additive to a trauma recovery programme. Boxing provides a healthy distraction in a supportive environment, rerouting brain circuitry, improving resilience, and providing the outlet to help a person get back on their feet and set them free from the trauma.
Martland, R., Mondelli, V., Gaughran, F., & Stubbs, B. (2020). Can high-intensity interval training
improve physical and mental health outcomes? A meta-review of 33 systematic reviews across the lifespan. Journal of sports sciences, 38(4), 430-469.
Ratey J., & Hagerman, E. (2008). Spark. Little Brown and Company.