05 Jun Exercising and Living Well with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur following exposure to potentially life-threatening or traumatic event. This can include events such as motor vehicle accidents, assault, or experiencing the atrocities of war and combat. Being survivors of these events can cause elevated levels of continual stress that has negative effects on the body. PTSD can cause overwhelming sense of guilt and create negative thought patterns, including replaying the traumatic scenes in the mind of people with PTSD and being on high alert a lot of the time, so that the body is continually in a state of ‘fight or flight’, so people experiencing PTSD may find it difficult to feel at rest.
How many people does this affect?
Traumatic events are tragically common among the population, as epidemiological studies have shown that around 1 in 2 people will have been exposed to trauma in their lifetime, with around 10% of those exposed to those events likely to develop PTSD. PTSD is especially common among groups exposed to trauma on a regular basis including combat veterans and first responders – such as police officers, ambulance workers and firefighters.
Unfortunately, there are many other health conditions that are strongly linked to PTSD.
What comorbidities do those with PTSD face?
The continual stress associated with PTSD affects the way that body works, which may lead to secondary conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal aches, weakened immune function, depression, obesity, reduced libido and increased risk of diabetes.
There have also been some observed lifestyle factors among people with PTSD that may contribute to the development of secondary conditions such as sedentary behaviour, poor dietary and sleeping habits, smoking and alcohol abuse. These can compile to hinder the recovery process and can often make PTSD-related symptoms worse.
So, what can exercise do?
It’s early days, but the research is building to support the role of exercise as treatment for those with PTSD, as it has a role in improving the management of the secondary conditions that are prevalent among those with PTSD.
Moderate to high intensity aerobic exercise (60-80% of age predicted max heart rate) can reduce depressive, anxiety related and PTSD symptom severity, and it can serve as an additional form of treatment that is easily accessible and has minimal risk of adverse side effects. Combining it with appropriate resistance training would also serve additional benefits. Some theorise that the distraction aspect of exercising is the basis of its therapeutic effect, which make it a highly feasible form of treatment among people with PTSD, as it is non-stigmatising and socially acceptable, especially among emergency workers and military veterans.
It may serve as an appropriate additional part to routine care like psychotherapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that involves recalling the trauma or being exposed to reminders that trigger memories of the trauma in the therapeutic process.
So, what now?
It all starts with how we view mental health. We put our front foot forward and give our best efforts to take care of our physical health when something happens to it, whether it’s an injury or disease of some sort, but there is a certain type of lag when it comes to seeking treatment for mental health issues. Maybe it’s because of societal misconceptions of those with mental illnesses or maybe it’s due to the stigma. That crippling stigma can be broken by those in the general population and among health professionals in how we communicate and view people with mental disorders such as PTSD. People with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder want to live life well again, and we can all contribute to make that happen.
To conclude, our physical health is clearly not separate to our mental health. This was highlighted by brilliantly by Brock Chisholm, the first director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) that stated in 1954: “Without mental health, there can be no true physical health.”
Exercise appears to be essential for both.
What’s the ‘Take-Home’ message?
- Exercise is an effective component of treatment for mental disorders like PTSD and can help manage symptoms and reduce risk of secondary health conditions.
- Programs will need to be individualised, as everyone’s experience of PTSD is different. This will help with adherence and engagement to the program, and an Accredited Exercise Physiologist will be well equipped to be able to do that.
- Mental health and physical health are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other.