Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Exercise Relieves Impacts of Trauma

Traumatic experiences can keep the brain on high alert.  Chronic activation of the fight-or-flight stress response forms pathways of brain cells that promote hypervigilance.  Unresolved trauma can keep stress arousal stuck in high gear. 

Exercise can help rewire trauma-induced neural pathways.  Neurochemicals, such as brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) and irisin, decrease with aging and exposure to stress.  Exercise increases BDNF and irisin levels, which helps heal the damage from stress and trauma by:

  • Increasing brain volume in areas responsible for learning, memory, and cognitive function, via the birth of new brain cells in a process called neurogenesis;
  • Improving the health and functioning of brain cells, including the capacity for forming neural networks, which likely explains why exercise improves cognitive function;
  • Raising antioxidant levels, which helps protect against oxidative stress; and
  • Restoring stress arousal to a resilient level, which improves current mood and brain function, and prepares the brain for processing traumatic events and healing neural networks.

Takeaway:  Exercise improves resilience from trauma and enhances cognitive function.

Well-being is a journey, not a quick fix

Source Schiraldi, G.R., Adverse Childhood Experiences, Exercise, and the Brain, Psychology Today, Jan 12, 2022, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hidden-wounds/202201/adverse-childhood-experiences-exercise-and-the-brain.  Schiraldi is the author of The Adverse Childhood Experiences Recovery Workbook (2021), New Harbinger.

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