Can Exercise Help in PTSD Treatment?

According to Jane Clapp, YES!...but she doesn’t like to call it “exercise”. She considers this word too loaded with negative cultural context--that people tend to associate it with sweat, pain, and suffering, and definitely not with healing. She prefers the word movement and fuses several different modalities to help her clients.

Jane Clapp is technically a personal trainer, but she doesn’t approach fitness in the traditional sense. Jane has developed proprietary techniques for working with those recovering from trauma, which she teaches to other wellness professionals in Toronto. Her methodology, called “Movement for Trauma”, addresses the mind-body connection, utilizing movement to re-calibrate the autonomic nervous system and help clients become more grounded in their bodies.

Striving for the “WOT”

As Jane explains, a traumatic experience triggers a fight, flight, freeze, collapse, or fawn/attach response. While we often hear about the hyperaroused states of fight or flight, the states of freeze, collapse, and fawn/attach can prove even more debilitating and difficult to treat.

In a state of fight or flight, individuals can continue to respond and take action. These two responses, under chronic stress, for example, can set off a cascade of psychological and physiological events, including hypervigilance, tension/rigidity, difficulty sleeping, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. However, those in fight or flight can mobilize their bodies and respond to threats, by either escaping or fighting back, thus keeping traumatic stress imprinting at bay.

Over time, this constant feeling of being on edge can lead to exhaustion and, eventually, a state of freeze, collapse, or fawn/attach—nearly the opposite of fight or flight. The body actually produce natural opioids, inducing weakness, fatigue, and/or “numbness”. We might even feel incapable of moving or speaking.

The collapse response arises from a survival instinct to “feign death” by essentially shutting down. In a freeze state, the individual dissociates/disconnects and isolates. And, in a fawn/attach state, related to codependency, the individual merges their needs and desires with others, essentially forfeiting their preferences and boundaries.

All of these states fall outside of what Jane refers to as the window of tolerance” (“WOT”). The WOT—a term coined by Dr. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center—describes the state of healthy emotional equilibrium between these two extremes. This is where we are “in the moment”: Present in our own bodies and easily able to rebound from stressors. This is where we should all strive to exist most of the time. (*This pictograph, created by Dr. Marie S. Delezic, showcases the WOT theory.) 

Working with clients that are in fight, flight, freeze, collapse, or fawn/attach mode requires awareness of how these states may influence one’s ability to move, and even learn. To determine whether someone might be suffering from either of these traumatic responses, Jane offers a 3-step evaluation process, known as “A.R.T.”.


Using the Framework of A.R.T.

Working with clients that are in either fight-or-flight or freeze/collapse mode requires awareness of how these states may influence one’s ability to move, and even learn. To determine whether someone might be suffering from either of these traumatic responses, Jane offers a 3-step evaluation process, known as “A.R.T.”:

A = Assess. Observe the client both visually and “intuitively”. In other words, use your nervous system to sense how they feel their emotions physically (e.g., how they hold tension).

R = Regulation & Resources. Help clients regulate their nervous systems by using a variety of proprioceptive and breath-based techniques (“resources”), gradually moving them into the WOT.

T = Train for Resilience. Choose activities that help clients stay grounded and connected with others, that helps them feel strong and empowered, and that expands the WOT by increasing their tolerance to life’s stressors. How? By challenging them just enough to create an “easy win”, thereby improving self-efficacy.

Though technically a psychological phenomenon, trauma affects the body greatly: The body manifests responses through muscle and fascial activation. We have all experienced this in some way. When happy, we smile or laugh. When sad, we cry. We say we have a “broken heart” when a lover rejects us because it can actually feel this way physically.   

“An emotion without a physical sensation is just a thought.” ~ Jane Clapp


5 Tips for Health & Wellness Professionals

As personal trainers, mental health professionals, and other healthcare providers, we need to start acknowledging this inextricable and powerful link between body and mind: We need to honor the inherently psychosomatic nature of the human condition. We must begin to approach all forms of coaching and treatment from an integrative perspective, addressing the whole person, using every modality.

To improve our professional skillset and to better help our clients and patients, Ms. Clapp offers five great tips:

  1. Speak to the “unhealed inner child” of clients/patients: Choose activities that provide the opportunity for both fun and a sense of mastery.

  2. Encourage clients/patients to become more mindful of what’s happening within themselves: Ask what’s happening in their lives, how it made them feel emotionally, and if those feelings manifest somewhere in the body? For example,  do they feel any physical tension, pain or numbness?

  3. Take a collaborative approach over an overly-prescriptive or even “patriarchal” one: Allow your clients/patients to participate in deciding what type of movements or activities would most benefit them at that moment.

  4. Foster community within your facility or practice by providing opportunities for patients/clients to connect with each other.

  5. Do your own work first! So many of us have unresolved baggage that we bring into our treatment/coaching relationships. By actively engaging in our own healing and developing a sense of compassion and forgiveness for ourselves, we can significantly improve our ability to help others through this process and become fully present in our professional capacities.

As a practitioner in the health industry for two decades, Jane Clapp combines holistic personal training with tension and trauma healing to help clients gain strength, mobility and energy. The founder of Urbanfitt, she has helped more than 1,000 clients improve emotional and nervous system regulation, positively shift neuroplasticity and release somatized stress and trauma. Jane is an experienced and illuminating speaker, a widely consulted media expert, and an internationally recognized author. She is available for personal, group and corporate training, as well as speaking engagements, worldwide.


* Dezelic, M. S. & Ghanoum, G. 2016.  Trauma treatment - healing the whole person: Meaning-centered therapy & trauma treatment foundational phase-work manual. Miami, FL: Presence Press International.