Effects of Physical Activity on PTSD

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Updated: May 16, 2022
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Post Traumatic Stress disorder is a debilitating disease that affects relationships, and the physical and mental state. While no cure has been found, exercise has been proven to lessen the effects of this condition. Physical activity has also been linked to prevention of diseases and illnesses that are typically associated with PTSD. Most commonly seen with military veterans, after being diagnosed with PTSD aggression levels rise. Physical activity leads to a feeling of confidence and allows an outlet to relieve pent-up aggression, while combating the urge to postpone activities.

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Physical activity is the most effective treatment for PTSD, and is efficient in avoiding prolonged and worsening effects.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a crippling illness diagnosed after the occurrence of a traumatic experience followed by the onset of recurrent anxiety, nightmares, and aggression. Many also experience flashbacks and uncontrollable thoughts after witnessing the event. For most, this disease prevents them from participating in various activities that they enjoy, it may also keep them out of work, or permanently damage relationships. While there are currently no cures that successfully get rid of PTSD, studies have shown that “low-to-moderate intensity exercise can elevate mood, reduce anxiety (Cohen and Shamus, 2009) and act as an overall stress-buffer (Tsatsoulis and Fountoulakis) (Kim, et al. par. 3).  For an individual with the disease, “Getting effective treatment after PTSD symptoms develop can be critical to reduce symptoms and improve function (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) par. 3).

Without treatment, symptoms may worsen leading to more debilitating impacts. An individual with PTSD will usually begin showing signs of intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking or mood, as well as changes in physical and emotional reactions. This leads to the withdrawal of participation in leisure time and physical activities. According to a study by the Hospital das Clinicas da Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade de Sao Paulo, a person diagnosed with PTSD will remove themselves from engaging in activities that were formerly enjoyed.

As shown by the graph, individuals diagnosed with PTSD have significantly reduced the participation in activities, especially exercise. While some of this can be attributed to the individuals with no one to participate in physical activity with them, majority of the avoidance of participating in physical activity stems from the anxiety and depression that is associated with PTSD. Depression leaves a feeling of sadness, usually leaving the victim unmotivated. While physical activity aids in a feeling of boosted self-esteem, if the person has severe depression following the diagnosis of PTSD; many do not have the motivation or the feeling that they should. Instead, physical activity is written off, this can contribute to the development of depression. When depression evolves into chronic depression. Drug use and alcoholism can result, which leads to the worsening of health issues and the introduction to addiction.

The graph shows the reduction of participation in leisure time activities as well as physical activities. Leisure time activities, or hobbies have been proven to produce a similar reaction that physical activity does in relation to boosting mood. The concept of shopping therapy reduces endorphins as well as physical activities, which can boost mood, leaving a feeling of euphoria. The reduction of participation can reduce a feeling of purpose, which similarly can worsen depression and anxiety.

The avoidance of participation is due to the amount of stress, depression, and anxiety. This causes the individual to isolate themselves, which provides a feeling of protection from the outside world. In treating this, exercise is successful and provides positive results when dealing with PTSD and the mental illnesses that stem from the disease. What is called “working out PTSD, is done by the employment of an exercise program. “Patients who received the exercise program in addition to usual care showed greater improvements in symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety and stress compared to those who received usual care alone (Rosenbaum par. 11). Physical activity releases endorphins, which aid in providing a positive feeling throughout the body; overall helping to reduce anxiety and stress, and deal with feelings of depression.

The most common treatment for PTSD is enrolling the individual in cognitive behavioral therapy. For those who have aggression on the spectrum, or employ avoidance to neglect the recurrent memories, this therapeutic treatment will have no positive impacts. Seen as an alternative therapy, “physical activity has been shown to reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress in persons with subsyndromal symptoms and persons resistant to standard treatment (Oppizzi, Umberger par. 1). Treatment with physical activity has statistically proven to be more successful in patients as a whole, but especially those resistant to standard treatment. A negative effect of cognitive behavioral therapy can stem a feeling of insecurity, and belittlement. Some fear talking about their problems, to avoid sense of judgement. Another benefit of exercise is that it “can play an important role in helping clients with PTSD recover and regain confidence which has similar effects to the goal of cognitive behavioral therapy, while providing an option for recovery without negative feelings towards the treatment (Kim et al. par. 9).

It is argued that physical activity may lead to feelings of defeat if a task can not be completed. While there is no reported treatment that is fully effective, many researchers believe that physical activity is the most promising treatment. “The absence of a cure makes PTSD treatment a multifaceted challenge, and no cure has been completely successful when looking at the population as a whole (Schneider par. 3). While exercise may help most, there is still no evidence of a treatment that will allow for positive results for the whole community. This can make the conversation controversial, since some view the route for physical activity as forcing the victim into a rigorous routine. All previously discovered treatments have not been as successful in preventing the onset of illnesses that accompany PTSD.

In a study conducted by Van der Kolk et al., a study was done with 64 women, all who were diagnosed with chronic PTSD which had been resistant to all recent treatments. While the physical activity was not rigorous, the conclusion of the study was that yoga reduced the symptoms of PTSD, and contributed to a sense of accomplishment in the population of the women. Similar treatments that are not of an aggressive schedule or rigor include yoga, qigong, t’ai chi, dance, and play and creative therapy (Ley et al. par 7). In a conducted study where fifty five males diagnosed with combat related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the use of physical activity severely reduced the onset of a disease related with PTSD, fibromyalgia. Arnson stated,  “The results of our study suggest that regular physical activity conducted over many years can prevent the emergence of FMS among patients with sustained PTSD (par. 21). In a study conducted by Oppizzi and Umberger, the results were that “Physical activity has also been shown to improve health conditions that can accompany PTSD (par. 1). By analyzing the results of these studies, it can be concluded that physical activity reduces the development and onset of diseases related to PTSD, but many other treatments are only effective for reducing the symptoms of PTSD alone.

An added benefit in similarity to health related illnesses is prevention of obesity, alcoholism, and potential drug use. Physical activity can aid in the removal of harmful toxins from the body, in addition to burning calories preventing the onset of obesity. With the increased heart rate, “[the] naturally occurring variation in heart rate is linked to higher levels of emotion-forward coping- (Muller par. 7). This is providing a solution to multiple problems, in a treatment option that is proven to be both time and cost effective, on top of dealing with emotional trauma. Physical activity, and the release of endorphins will help to energize an individual, which provides a mood boost, and an aid in the effectiveness of sleep, by producing a feeling like a high; until a crash, causing the person to feel exhausted. This can make it easier for a person diagnosed with insomnia after the onset of PTSD to sleep at night, which helps with a boost in mood and can contribute to a more positive feeling to enter a new day with.

Studies and research have proven that physical activity has multiple benefits when treating individuals with PTSD. The use of physical activity for treatment helps to prevent the onset of diseases associated with PTSD, and the worsening of the illness. Physical activity can reduce the probability of emergence of a new addiction to substances. Exercise has been proven to be the most effective treatment when dealing with victims with PTSD, and serves as a cure for those resistant to the other available cures.

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Effects of Physical Activity on PTSD. (2019, Oct 02). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/effects-of-physical-activity-on-ptsd/