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Running Through Trauma

Running may help address deep psychological and emotional wounds.

by Katrina Anderson, LMHC

Most of us have a pretty clear understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is an anxiety disorder that may occur after one survives a life-threatening event. What is less clear however is trauma and what suffering from trauma looks like. In the psychological sense, trauma pertains to surviving deeply distressing event (s). A person may have survived a traumatic childhood, relationship, witnessed a traumatic event and many times all of the above. Trauma can also affect us in smaller ways, having a negative interaction with a stranger, an aggressive boss or a stressful commute are all examples of potential stressors that could trigger a trauma response. What makes trauma such a vague term in today’s world is its very pervasive nature. Many of us have survived a variety of traumatic events without even realizing our lives are being affected by what we have survived.

With the advancements in neurobiology, researchers are beginning to understand how traumatic events are processed and stored in the brain. This understanding has lead to advancements in the understanding of trauma and the body, allowing psychological approaches to begin to treat the entire system of the individual, not just cognition.

When exposed to a traumatic situation stress hormones (think adrenaline and cortisol) and a variety of neurochemicals including catecholamine, serotonin, amino acid, peptide, and opioid neurotransmitters flood the system. These relate to the trauma response of fight/flight/freeze and may ultimately create constant dysregulation in mood and emotion. Think of a time when you or someone you know seemed to have gone from 0-100 in just a few seconds. Or when an emotional response you had felt much larger than the actual trigger. For many people, this is unresolved trauma being remembered by the body. These lingering neurochemicals make it tough for the trauma survivor to experience and regulate emotion in a typical way.

Many individuals who have survived severe events can talk about what they experienced and hold tremendous insight into how it affects them, yet they still do not feel any better. So many of us are walking around with an activated body with no cognition to make sense of it. Traditional methods of such as talk therapy and pharmaceutical intervention often fall short in fully treating trauma. The lack of mind-body connection in conventional treatment is why many traditional talk therapies often fail. Many trauma survivors are prescribed a variety of psychotropic medications meant to help with the uncomfortable feelings through reuptake and metabolization of the neurochemicals that have been affected by traumatic stress. Sometimes these medications do not work, are expensive and come with unwanted side effects. Although stabilizing symptoms and creating meaning while gaining insight can be crucial and healing, they are often not enough on their own. Each individual deserves unique, holistic options, and everyone deserve the opportunity heal.

We all know exercise is good for us, and most of us even understand that exercise has a positive effect on mood. But what may not yet be fully appreciated is the healing and stabilizing effect of exercise. Running, in particular, may work on the exact systems that are affected by trauma and traumatic stress.

Research has started to demonstrate that aerobic exercise not only increases levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which are important neurotransmitters involved in thoughts and emotions but that it may also combat the effects of stress and anxiety on the brain. The body's natural opioids and endocannabinoids, which are responsible for experiencing a sense of euphoria and well-being, sedation, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects as wells a decreased sensitivity to pain are also found to be released during aerobic exercise (Portugal et al., 2013). You can imagine why naturally triggering these neurochemicals could be important for any of us, especially those of us carrying a trauma story.

Running may also work on the exact system that is hijacked by the trauma response. While running an individual can experience an increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, discomfort in the stomach and overall muscle tension. These feelings are also common experiences of the trauma survivor. In teaching the body that it can experience these sensations, while staying safe and in control the individual can help work through these previously stuck sensations and help the body restore to a balanced state. Running can be an incredibly empowering experience; minus the cost of sneakers it is entirely free and can be done in groups or as a solo activity. While running, one can practice clearing their mind working to benefit from a meditation response or actively think about what is upsetting them, allowing them to “run through” it.

Researchers are currently interested in exploring the integration of cognitive processing with running in the treatment of trauma. The hypothesis is that through the use of imagination, the body can simultaneously discharge the stuck material and be given a different experience, such as run instead of freeze. Anyone can try this mini experiment on their own, in fact you probably already have. The next time you go out for a run think of a recent incident that still holds an emotional charge, perhaps an argument with your partner, an unpleasant experience at work or any similar event. Match this image to your breath and body movement while running, and explore what happens next.

While it is tempting to look for a miracle cure, trauma is a complex human experience, and no one treatment will work for everyone. Running, however, may be a holistic, gentle and accessible approach to moving through your trauma.

Katrina Anderson is a licensed mental health counselor in private practice in New York City, working toward a Ph.D. in mind-body medicine.


Paluska, S. A., & Schwenk, T. L. (2000). Physical activity and mental health. Sports Medicine, 29(3), 167-180.

Ratey, J. (2008). Spark the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: the Penguin Group.

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