• jbean

OVER-exercising for appearance? You're sprinting towards a trauma response

Updated: 3 days ago

For a few weeks I’ve been on a really good health streak. I should be proud and screaming my brain hacks from the rooftops, but I have not been. I realized I haven’t wanted to share… because I know how I (self-hating Jess) would have reacted a few years ago.


“Oh, fucking great for you. You have the energy and free time to go running, wow. You’re eating healthily and you feel awesome? OOOO. *sarcastic jazz hands* Must be nice! Git fucked.”


(and so starts the rapid mental spiral about what a piece of shit you are, how you’re so disappointed in your own body, how you can’t control your bingeing like other people just can, blah blah blah…)


Sigh.


I know dude. And that’s not what I want for anyone.


So, as an intro to the topic of getting all fit and health aware in the name of mental health and mindset management, first I want to get the dark and dirty post out of the way.


I wanna talk about the problem with exercising (or just thinking about exercising) for the wrong reason – for appearance. How a physical perfectionist mindset mingles with your traumatized mindset, sparks trauma response in your body, and sets ya up for rapid failure.






Trauma brain and comparison burnout. Fuck Jogging Jenny down the street.


First things first. Your inner critic is an asshole; comparison is the fuel to ignite a breakdown. We all know that.


I’m about to sound like a dick, but to put this bluntly, people who casually know me usually think that I have my shit together. (HA! Right?) People say they find me intimidating. They think I’m doing it all. They compare themselves to me. I’m told a big part of this has to do with my physical appearance. I’m tallish, scrawny, and I generally take care of my face/hair before I’m in public. There, I said it. My tingling woman senses want me to apologize.


I know, when you’re feeling bad enough, even those basic details are enough to start the comparison game. From low places, everyone seems to be soaring. And when ‘everyone else’ already has their pilot’s license, yours seems that much more impossible to attain. Why even start? Also, FUCK THEM for joining flight school before you, amiright?


Believe me when I say, “been there.”


Comparing yourself to others doesn’t lift you up or motivate you with positive energy. It drags you down and injects you with guilt/shame/inferiority/spite/hopelessness. It fills you with forfeit. It increases your stagnancy. I think we can agree, anyone with a traumatized brain lives with plenty of this nonsense already.

Folks who aren’t talking to me on a regular basis really think I’ve got it together. Especially when I’m on my ultra-motivated streaks where I’m hiking/climbing mountains/jogging every morning, eating fish and veggies for every meal, and containing my drinking to 1-2 days a week (I worked at a brewery, so this was harder/more unusual than it sounds).


But the motherfucking truth is, I’M RARELY EVER DOING THIS WELL.


Folks only know about my highs because I’m not talking to anyone during my lows. Who wants to hear about my inability to go outside and my proficiency at eating bricks of cheese in my bed? No one, and I don’t even want them to see the damage I’ve done to myself.


But no, I’m not health-perfect. I don’t have an ironclad will power. I can’t keep my eye on the prize 365 days a year. There are times when I’m EXTREMELY shitty, and it self-perpetuates for months (years, too).


Exercise has almost always been a tortuous necessity of life for me. For every 1 day I’ve eaten steamed salmon and broccoli, there are 10 that I binged on tortillas covered in shakable parmesan for dinner. And if you think my face looks good, you should see it before I undo all the damage from binge eating/drinking/crying.


I have a spotted history with health, diet, appearance, and especially exercise.


Look at me now while I’m doing fine, and you don’t automatically assume I’ve repeatedly gained 20-30lbs by living in between my sheets and shoving handfuls of trail mix into my mouth for a few years, miserably avoiding life. You don’t feel the shame I’ve experienced. You don’t hear the voice in my head reiterating how disgusting I am.


You don’t realize how much damage I’ve done to myself with unhealthy patterns of overdoing it and giving up. And you might compare yourself to the assumed “ease” of keeping it tight over here at TMFR HQ.


If you look at so-and-so and imagine they have everything going for them, you’re wrong. Point blank. You have no idea what their real circumstances are. You don’t know what goes on in THEIR fucked-up head. You shouldn’t torture yourself for their imagined experiences.

Comparing yourself to others doesn’t lift you up or motivate you with positive energy. It drags you down and fills you with guilt/shame/inferiority/spite/hopelessness. It fills you with forfeit. It increases your stagnancy. I think we can agree, anyone with a traumatized brain lives with plenty of this nonsense already.


If you look at so-and-so and imagine they have everything going for them, you’re wrong. Point blank. You have no idea what their real circumstances are. You don’t know what goes on in THEIR fucked-up head. You shouldn’t torture yourself for their imagined experiences.

(I know, easier said than done.)


If your comparison game is so strong that its debilitating, the best suggestion I can give (that you don’t need to hear again, because you already know), is to get off social media. Tune into your own world, stop caring so much about the fake lives you see on the fucking internet.

Trauma brain and appearance obsession is a losing combination; dissociation, shame, and guilt.


Let’s be totally honest, until recently (the past 2-3 years max) I’ve exclusively considered exercise a way to obtain a certain appearance. To combat a bulging belly and keep my cheeks tight, I’ve intermittently forced myself into brutal workout regimes alongside strict calorie restrictions.


The problem is, I have a traumatized brain, and it approaches physical appearance with the same piss and vinegar inner critic, obsession, and dissociation, as everything else in the world.


Once my brutalizing workout focus starts, I manically keep up my routine, obsessing over every calorie in and out, like it’s a newfound addiction.


I go hard. I hold myself to insane standards out of nowhere. Zero to One Hundred is the story of my health life. I wear myself into the ground… and one month later I won’t be doing any of it.


The problem is, I have a traumatized brain, and it approaches physical wellness with the same piss and vinegar inner critic, obsession, and dissociation, as everything else in the world.

My “get hot” intentions quickly turn to intrusive thoughts and personal shaming. My new obsession comes with anxiety and perfectionism that ultimately cripples my efforts. I set unrealistic goals and punish myself for every day I didn’t “correctly” restrict myself. Nothing is ever enough. Exercising feels heavy and dark, rather than enjoyable and beneficial.


Since I'm a skilled dissociator, it's no problem for me to shutoff my bodily feedback. I'm not checking in with myself enough - or, if I'm half-asking how my body feeling before drowning out its exhausted screams with another lap around the block - I'll easily push myself to the brink of breakdown. And those hunger pains? Just keep working until you forget them.


After a few weeks, I’m worn out and my starved immune system falls to some illness. From that point forward, I start giving myself relaxing “cheat days.” My cheat days quickly turn into guilt and shame festivals, when I’m positive I’m undoing all my good work, but can’t seem to stop recreationally eating anyways.


As the stress I’m piling on myself grows and my inner voice whispers sweet nothings about my midsection-failure, I dig myself deeper and deeper into a stagnant depression. Helplessness creeps in. The thought of going out and moving my ass for ten minutes sounds impossible. I put it off for days and weeks, until it’s grown into a huge weight bearing down around my chest.


I will ultimately never go back to my short-lived regime, and my body condition will sink to a lower place than it started.


As the stress I’m piling on myself grows and my inner voice whispers sweet nothings about my midsection-failure, I dig myself deeper and deeper into a stagnant depression. Helplessness creeps in. The thought of going out and moving my ass for ten minutes sounds impossible. I put it off for days and weeks, until it’s grown into a huge weight bearing down around my chest.

The same dangerous thinking patterns that perpetuate a “trauma victimhood mindset" also corrupt your attempts at self-improvement when nothing is ever going to be good enough. And when you’re expecting physical perfection, nothing is every going to be good enough.


This obsessive tendency (along with all the nay saying inner criticisms that follow) is the problem with exercising for appearance instead of wellness when you already have a traumatized brain.


Over exercising and trauma signals in your body


I’m a relatively young woman with similar body ideals and comparison tendencies to everyone ages 10-100. I’ve always been “thin” by most standards, but there are times when my shit slips. Over weeks and months, I notice my gut growing. My face starts looking like a moon. The tush is suddenly sagging or nonexistent. I want to destroy all my clothes.


Of course, as a dedicated self-foot-shooter, I don’t deal with these issues one by one as they’re being spotted over time… I put them off until I completely hate myself and I go OVERBOARD trying to fix my entire existence all at once.


I get super motivated by shame, my anxiety kicks into a manic swing, and I start a new process of pushing myself to the limit. Every workout is a full-force sprint, defying all signals from my screaming out of shape body and repeating “you did this to yourself, bitch. Burrrrrn.”


I get super motivated by shame, my anxiety kicks into a manic swing, and I start a new process of pushing myself to the limit with my energy expenditure and calorie counts. Every workout is a full-force sprint, defying all signals from my screaming out of shape body and repeating “you did this to yourself, bitch. Burrrrrn.”

I’ll force myself to do all sorts of things I hate, no matter my condition that day. Sore? Work it off. Clearly sick? Exercise will help burn out the bugs. Hungover? This 2-hour stationary bike ride will help. Feel good about jogging/walking 6 miles today? You shouldn’t, you did 7 yesterday.


The thing I’ve realized is the harder I push myself, the more my body fights back.


In no time at all, I’m sore and exhausted from the moment I wake up. I notice temperature disturbances, fluctuating from chills to overheating. I’m starving all the time.


Without my knowledge, this hard approach to exercising and dieting out of the blue is having its own effects on my trauma brain and body. I’m pushing myself into a “pseudo survival mode” and expecting my biology to react favorably… you know… for the rest of my life, ideally.


Without my knowledge, this obsession with exercising out of the blue is having its own effects on my trauma brain and body. I’m pushing myself into a “pseudo survival mode” and expecting my biology to react favorably… you know… for the rest of my life, ideally.

Dear Jess, you were a biologist once, you know BIOCHEMICALLY, THAT ISN’T HOW THINGS WORK. Secondly, YOU’RE ADDING NEW TRAUMA TO YOUR BODY.


Think about it. When you’re running from a physical threat, your body responds with an acute burst of hormones and energy mobilization to get you out of that dangerous situation. You're stressing your body for a good reason; to GTF away from whatever threat you detected.


When you’re running yourself to death without building up to the practice because you decided your waist is too thick, you're equally stressed. Running until you can't see straight? Joining a hot yoga class without eating all day? You're putting your physiology through a lot.


And your body doesn’t know the fucking difference. It thinks there’s a masked gunman chasing you through the woods. Plus, from the caloric end of things, you're giving your bod starvation stress signals. Now, it really thinks the apocalypse is upon you.


Trauma lives in the body. If you’ve been primed for trauma responses for 30 years, you’ll react with trauma responses at inappropriate times. I think we have all seen that.


When you’re running from a physical threat, your body responds with an acute burst of hormones and energy mobilization to get you out of that dangerous situation. When you’re running yourself to death without building up to the practice because you decided your waist is too thick, your body doesn’t know the fucking difference.

When your physiology thinks you’re “running from murderers” day after day after day, your body and brain are going to start painting a very different picture than the world you’re living in.


You aren’t exercising for a better life – you’re trying to save your life! Mobilize the troops, shit’s going down. That signal is going to make its way to your brain, and the feedback loop will lead to a mental response.


You might start feeling more anxious. You have worse insomnia. Your brain is foggy and unfocused. Your obsession takes over. You start getting more restrictive and rigid in other areas. All the things exercise is supposed to fix start to be worsened by a brutal regime.


Your body can only respond with increased energy reserves and muscle development for so long when you aren’t supporting it properly. When your stress response is heightened because that silly spinal cord is transmitting messages of DOOM with every morning of P90X, you’re going to wear down the system even faster.


With overwrought exercise and a history of trauma, your system is going to be chronically stressed, your brain is going to suffer, your metabolism is going to drop like its riding the Tower of Terror, and your immune system is going to fail. Mark my words.

With overwrought exercise and a history of trauma, your system is going to be chronically stressed, your brain is going to suffer, your metabolism is going to drop like its riding the Tower of Terror, and your immune system is going to fail. Mark my words.


Inevitably, if I’m not listening to the signals being sent from my stressed out body, it’s going to find a way to get the point across. I will get sick. I will end up bedridden, fending off some “simple” infection that rages for a month. I will be incapacitated with migraines, muscle seizures, and generalized depression. My inflammatory diseases will show up with a vengeance.


AND, most ironic of all, I will regain all that fucking weight as my poor body tries to rebuild my energy reserves and prepare for the next self-inflicted terror. Starvation responses, abound!



Endless bodily trauma loops


After I’ve manically built 200 floors and come crashing down thanks to the crumbling foundation I never stabilized, I will become slow, heavy, and “broken” again. I will hate myself and feel immense shame over my now fat-skinny, bloated body. I will start to hide from the world. I will double down on anxious and depressive patterns in the discomfort of my own home.


I will experience a rebirth of social anxiety, agoraphobia, and isolation thanks entirely to my appearance. I'll self-brutalize and dig myself into depression.


I’ll eat my pains away and fill my spare time with snacking. I’ll get tired and complacent. I’ll start thing myself and other folks who I assume are doing better than I am.


Fuck Jogging Jenny up the block. Fuck everyone who seems to have their shit together. Fuck the people who find this “so easy.” Fuck me for these disgusting extra pounds and the things only I can’t do.


(and so starts the rapid mental spiral about what a piece of shit I am, how I’m so disappointed in your own body, how I can’t control my bingeing like other people just can, blah blah blah…) See what I did there?


I’ll gain 10-20 pounds and do the whole thing over again.


Thanks trauma.


Final words


Living with complex trauma is a daily challenge of balance, self-compassion, and shutting down the terrible voice in your head. You won’t succeed without training your brain little by little every day. And that, motherfuckers, is the same reason why you can’t exercise exclusively for perfectionistic physical ideals.


Shoot for tiny, daily improvements. Stop rocketing ahead and crashing back down. This is a long game, quit manically sprinting around the fucking field on an empty stomach.


Trust me when I say, I'm still working on it myself.



Please tell me other people struggle with this “full steam ahead” and rapid engine failure health/exercise pattern? How do you experience it? How do your brain and body respond to physical obsession? Whose perfect taunt ass do you resent the most?


Like my art? Thanks! Made during an impromptu 7 hour long phone call with my TMFR brother in Ukraine. Here's my work in progress:







Traumatized Motherfxckers

Not doomed. Not damaged.

Not dead yet.

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