Physical wellbeing

Healthy exercise and routines can enhance overall wellbeing and assist in managing impacts of trauma 

Trauma and abuse is an assault on both the mind and body. It can disrupt our mind body connection and place untold and ongoing stress upon our bodies. Investment in our physical wellbeing, eating and sleeping well supports us in reducing the impacts of this stress and reclaiming and connecting with our bodies in a positive way.  Below is some information and links we hope you find useful.  

Get active 

It has long been known that regular exercise is good for our physical health. It can reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and strokes. Recent studies have shown that regular physical activity also benefits our mental health and assists in managing, anxiety, depression and the impacts of trauma.   

People who experience trauma can often carry significant stress and distress in their bodies. Trauma and moments of high stress release adrenalin and cortisol into our system that if they stick around can negatively impact our health.  Exercise can help reduce an overabundance of adrenalin and cortisol AND release chemicals that are natural painkillers and elevate our overall mood.  

A 2023 systematic review in the European Journal of Psycho traumatology examined the ‘Relationship between physical activity and individual mental health after traumatic events’ and identified that physical activity  

  • Improved a person’s sense of well-being and quality of life  
  • Enhanced resilience and supported peer relationships 
  • Increased physiological functioning 
  • Reduced Post Traumatic Stress symptoms and hazardous alcohol consumption 
  • Improved sleep quality  

A 2019 Positive Psychology article noted 10 Neurological Benefits of Exercise

  • Decreased stress 
  • Decreased social anxiety 
  • Improved processing of emotions 
  • Prevention of neurological conditions 
  • Euphoria (short-term) 
  • Increased energy, focus and attention 
  • Hinderance to the aging process 
  • Improved memory 
  • Improved blood circulation 
  • Decreased ‘brain fog’ 

By engaging in exercise, we can build our sense of competence and confidence in our own abilities and start to build a solid foundation from which we can address the impacts of trauma.  Establishing and implementing an exercise routine can energise us and improve our self-esteem, as we set ourselves goals or challenges and achieve them.    

Which exercise? 

There are a range of different exercises and activities that you might already be doing or looking to introduce into your life.   A key is to find an exercise routine that best works for you and can become part of a regular routine. A 2024 British Medical Journal research review of over 200 articles looking at ‘Effect of exercise for depression’ found that: 

“The most effective exercise modalities were walking or jogging, yoga, strength training, and dancing. Although walking or jogging were effective for both men and women, strength training was more effective for women, and yoga or qigong was more effective for men. Yoga was somewhat more effective among older adults, and strength training was more effective among younger people. The benefits from exercise tended to be proportional to the intensity prescribed, with vigorous activity being better.” 

Given the above findings with respect to the benefits of yoga, tai chi and qigong, you might want to check out our companion page on Trauma informed yoga, tai chi and qigong

Starting to exercise 

If you are looking to increase your physical activity, start slowly, don’t put pressure on yourself.  Be realistic and take some time building your strength. Try a few different exercise options.      

If you are someone who prefers exercise with other people, look at exercising with a friend, where you can encourage and support each other.   

Everyone is different, you might be someone who likes team sports or decides to give classes at a local park or gym or online a go.  Encourage yourself, recognise there will be hiccups and days you don’t feel up to it and it is likely to be 6 weeks or so before you start to experience and see change. 

Exercise on prescription 

If you haven’t had a check up or exercised for a long time or are concerned about the effects of exercise on your health, check in with your GP before you start.  The GP may be able to advise you on particular exercises or activities.   

The value of getting out and about in the natural environment is now being acknowledged by doctors, with some writing ‘nature prescriptions’ to help treat chronic illness and stress.  Going for regular walks, immersing ourselves in the natural environment, noticing and experiencing the sights and sounds of nature in the bush, rainforest, scrub, beaches, in lakes, rivers and the sea can all help us to recalibrate and destress our bodies.    

Find balance 

Like all things, exercise can work for and against us, it is about finding balance, not overdoing or under doing it.  We recognise that exercise can become addictive, so watch out that you don’t overtrain and exhaust yourself.   

Improving our physical wellbeing is about ensuring you book in sufficient recovery time for our bodies to grow back stronger and sustain change in the long term.   The reality is that there will be good days and bad days and sometimes stress can appear in your life not of your making, establishing a regular exercise routine can provide both a solid foundation for change and a valuable daily reset.   

Building healthy bodies and minds that help us to live a good life and better manage stress is also about ensuring that we eat well and we sleep well.   

Eating well

Living well means living healthily. We know from research that whatever your difficulties, being down, going through tough times, dealing with overwhelming and distressing memories, eating well and exercising are practical strategies that you can put into practice today and help to get you back on track.  

Sometimes, we can get into unhealthy eating habits, it is useful to recognise that these are just that ‘habits’, habits that we can change.  Sometimes when we are feeling anxious, stressed or overwhelmed, we can seek out quick and easy ‘comfort foods’, like, ice cream, cakes, chips, take aways etc that can have a negative effect on our gut and long-term health.   

It can be helpful to identify foods that good for our health and gut that we can eat at time of stress, to focus on mindfully eating, on slowing down and taking time to taste each mouthful.   Eating well, like exercise, increases our energy and ability to focus and deal with stress.  

Enjoy eating well 

Eating well is about enjoying the food you eat, not just about nutrients. Where you can, get into the habit of enjoying tasty, fresh and health meals that you like and support your wellbeing.  It is not all or nothing, it is about finding a balance that works for you.   

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that you: 

Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from these five groups every day: 

  1. Plenty of vegetables, including different types and colours, and legumes/beans 
  2. Fruit 
  3. Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties, such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats, quinoa and barley 
  4. Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans 
  5. Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat (reduced fat milks are not suitable for children under the age of 2 years) 
  6. And drink plenty of water. 

The Australian Dietary Guidelines also recommends that you: 

  • Limit intake of foods containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol. 
  • Limit intake of foods high in saturated fat such as many biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, processed meats, commercial burgers, pizza, fried foods, potato chips, crisps and other savoury snacks. 
    • Replace high fat foods which contain predominantly saturated fats such as butter, cream, cooking margarine, coconut and palm oil with foods which contain predominantly polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as oils, spreads, nut butters/pastes and avocado.  
    • Low fat diets are not suitable for children under the age of 2 years. 
  • Limit intake of foods and drinks containing added salt. 
    • Read labels to choose lower sodium options among similar foods. 
    • Do not add salt to foods in cooking or at the table. 
  • Limit intake of foods and drinks containing added sugars such as confectionary, 
  • sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks. 
  • If you choose to drink alcohol, limit intake. For women who are pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding, not drinking alcohol is the safest option. 

Some useful health websites 

QLD Health & Wellbeing 
Tips from QLD Health to help you stay happy, healthy and active. Check out the Men’s Health section. 

Sleeping well 

Sleeping well is important for our everyday wellbeing. “Sleep hygiene” is the term often used to describe healthy and sustaining sleep habits. When sleep is disrupted or poor sleep habits develop it can negatively affect our mental and physical health. Sleep helps: 

  • Lower our risk for serious health problems, like diabetes and heart disease. 
  • Limit sickness. 
  • Maintain a healthy weight. 
  • Reduce stress and improve our mood. 
  • Think more clearly and do better at work. 
  • Get along with people. 

Most adults require 7-8 hours of sleep each night, comprising of 4-5 x 1.5 hour sleep cycles. Sleep cycles are important because in deep sleep part our bodies actually rejuvenate themselves, replacing cells that have been used in the previous day.  If we don’t get this sleep, then we are like a car running on empty. 

It can take as little as one week for bad habits to set in; unfortunately, it can take twice as long to correct! If you follow the below suggestions, your sleep will most likely improve within a few weeks. If you falter or stumble along the way that’s okay – you can reset and start again. 

In sharing the below information to support you developing good sleep patterns, we recognise that childhood trauma and abuse can mess with sleep and that a significant number of survivors experience nightmares and night terrors.  Please do check out our web page on Dealing with Nightmares – hopefully you will find it helpful. 

The underlying principle behind this sleep protocol is that you are training your body and mind to associate bed with drowsiness and sleepiness and to make sure that wakefulness occurs away from bed. You may have to persevere to re-train your body into this pattern. These suggestions have good medical research backing them up. 

Things to try to do 

  • Go to bed at the same time each day; it is tempting when you are tired to go to bed early – just like with jet lag, it is best to set a regular bedtime and to not vary it by more than 30 minutes either way. 
  • Get up at the same time each day. As with going to bed, your body will get into a routine if you don’t vary your getting-up time by 30 minutes either way. It is best to get out of bed in daylight as this allows your body to associate daylight with waking and darkness with sleep. 
  • Try exercise in some small way every day – this does not have to be too strenuous, any exercise will do, even a walk around the block. Make sure that you don’t do any strenuous exercise within a couple of hours of going to bed as it will stimulate your system. 
  • Spend time in natural light or outdoors – this does not have to be in direct sunlight but can even be near a window. Light helps your body produce melatonin which promotes sleep, and sunlight early in the day helps set your body clock. 
  • Make sure your bedroom is restful – make the temperature not too hot or cold, not too noisy or with bright lights from outside.  
  • Try to avoid checking your phone, watching television or using a laptop in the bedroom, particularly in bed, as this will give your body the message that bed is a place to be mentally stimulated.  
  • Switch your phone to sleep mode, do not disturb and silent at bedtime.  
  • Use your bed only for sleep or sex. Don’t use your bed as a lounge room for yourself, young children or animals, if you can. 
  • If you are taking prescription medication, take it at the times recommended as some medications can keep you alert if taken too close to bed- time. 
  • Try to avoid any stimulating activity before bed – whether that is physical stimulation like playing competitive games, watching an exciting or scary media or having a conversation that stimulates your mind. 
  • Make sure your bed is comfortable – it is worth the investment in good sheets, blankets and pillows and making sure you are warm in winter. Sometimes a warm bath about one hour before bed time helps the body’s temperature rise and then when it falls again you might feel drowsy 
  • Caffeine can have a body life of up to 7 hours so it is probably best to avoid drinks with caffeine after about 2 pm in the day – this includes tea (including green tea), coffee, colas and lots of other soft drinks (check the labels). If you find you are waking up to empty your bladder a lot at night, then limit any fluid intake for a couple of hours before bed time. 
  • Having said switch off your phone, we recognise that for some people calming apps, mindfulness or music can assist you to relax and can become part of a healthy sleeping routine.   

Things to try to avoid 

  • Going to bed too hungry or too full can get in the way of sleep because the stomach and digestive system are working hard 
  • If you nap in the daytime or before going to bed then you might have tricked your body into thinking it is rested and you will have trouble getting off to sleep – try to avoid doing this 
  • If you go to bed and don’t fall asleep, DON’T STAY IN BED. This is the most important part of the sleep hygiene protocol – by staying in bed when you are awake you are training your body into associating bed with wakefulness. If you have lain awake for 15-30 minutes (no longer) then take your wakefulness out of bed, into another room and DO SOMETHING BORING. This is most important – sitting with a dim light on an armchair is a good option. Once you are feeling drowsy or sleepy, then take your drowsiness back to bed. This helps your mind associate bed with sleep. You may have to do this multiple times at first. If it is winter it can be tempting to stay in a warm, cosy bed, even when you are awake – make sure the other room has a warm rug or blanket to put over your knees while you are sitting there waiting for drowsiness to come back again. 
  • Try not to look at your phone or watch if you are not falling asleep – the time will pass anyway and checking may just make you feel anxious which will get in the way of sleep. 
  • Smoking stimulates the body – if you are a smoker try to cut back as the evening progresses and try not to smoke just before going to bed 
  • Some people can be in a habit of drinking alcohol to help them get to sleep – it may do this, but it won’t help you stay asleep. In fact, it is likely to lead to more interrupted sleep later in the night. It can also lead to more need to empty your bladder, which will wake you up. 
  • Doctors are usually reluctant to prescribe sleeping tablets as they are very addictive – some can also make you sleepy during the day-time 
  • Try not to do “catch up” sleeps in the day-time – our body doesn’t actually recognise these sleeps as catching up and you will probably be just as tired that night but will have more difficulty falling asleep 

Persistence is a good habit 

If you do most of these things you will find your sleep improving within a couple of weeks. You will need to persist, however; and remember, don’t be too hard on yourself if you get it wrong occasionally – just get back on track and follow the suggestions again. 

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this page is general in content and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.  Health advice with respect to exercise, diet and sleep difficulties should be discussed with a qualified medical and health practitioner.