A Helping Hand

three men kneeling on reformer pilates machines

I’m Rachael, a trauma therapist dedicated to working with those who have been in the services and their families. I am the Sydney Psychology Manager for Soldier On and I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say that out-of-the-box ideas are my favourite place to be.  

I have learnt through my time in working with veterans, that just because a particular therapy is supposed to “work”, doesn’t mean that it does. It also doesn’t mean you are applying it incorrectly or that your client is not engaging correctly. It doesn’t mean that it will never be effective for some either.  

Nobody needs a one-trick pony, we are a complex being with a variety of needs, likes, dislikes, characteristics, personal traits, and talents. We need to find something, or more likely a mix of things, that work for us and towards our desired outcomes over time. A manageable but diverse array of tools in the toolbox will set us up well for future challenges.  

We don’t want to spread ourselves so thin that we are not meaningfully engaging with anyone or anything, but we also don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. So, dare I say it… therapy is not the only path towards recovery and wellbeing. Perhaps it’s not even the starting point in some cases? 

In many cases we are not ready to talk. We might not even have words to communicate our experiences to others. In many cases it may be one step further than that. We might not even know what we are feeling beyond a sense that something is awry to varying degrees. So how would we sit in a room and talk about it? If we do, what impact does that have? For many this can lead to an experience of therapy or psychologists being unhelpful and result in them withdrawing further into isolation. 

In these cases, what if we started with the body? What if we started with learning to listen to the cues that are telling us something is up? How do we even do this? The Answer: Pilates. Stay with me now and hear me out. It needs a backstory. 

How I came to this understanding 

I was an active person, loved team sports and getting out and doing things, nothing particularly notable but it was enjoyable and provided a lot of my social connection. I’d always had some joint pain, but it was manageable. Then suddenly at 25yrs old, this discomfort increased dramatically. I stopped most of my activity and began seeing various professionals for treatment. Over ten years this has included lots of physio, 2 hip surgeries and more to come in future, acupuncture, cortisol injections into the hip joints & SIJ, managing a pregnancy with dodgy hip, at times not being able to simply walk around my apartment comfortably let alone walk around the block or to the shops.

There was a whole lot of restriction. For a long time, I would go through boom and bust cycles of managing my pain. I jokingly referred to my body as “the defective shell that I lived in” and had a mindset that I was just going to do what I wanted to do and put up with the consequences. This would regularly cause 8-week setbacks in my treatment plans, difficulty sleeping with flare ups and constant pain to varying degrees, all manageable but constantly uncomfortable.

The mindset I had of mentally overcoming my body’s feedback was my own greatest enemy. I pushed back my first surgery until I could hardly walk, thenand I took a surgery appointment jokingly offer by my doctor with three days’ notice. I had no recovery plan or team and the doctor assured me that after 6 weeks on crutches I’d be good to go… this was not the case. 

I was introduced to Pilates throughout this time and honestly, at first, I hated it. I found it boring. It was slow, I didn’t break a sweat, and anything that looked interesting, like hanging upside-down from the caddy, was beyond the range of movement for my very tight restrictions. Eventually, I found a teacher that I gelled with. By this point, I had become rather cautious of people saying they could “fix my hips” and telling me I should do things that I knew were going to cause a setback. So my level of willingness to trust new professionals was low and I was coming around to accepting some of my limitations, while still rebelling against my body every few months and messing it all up again! The definition of self-sabotage! My teacher would ask “how are you & how is your body”, it made me laugh at first but it’s a great question. It also fits very comfortably with my coping mechanism of seeing myself as being separate from my body. 

Nearly 10 years on and I’m still going to Pilates weekly. I have more mobility now and much more acceptance, along with a very different mindset. I listen to my body, the pain is not constant but I still have many restrictions. I continue to have the thought of “Bugger it, I’m just going to do it anyway”, but I act on this less often and less impulsively. I can identify the emotions driving this and links it to other struggles and avoidant coping mechanisms. I have broken the all-or-nothing cycle and can take a much more moderated approach, not just to physical activity but to workload, social activities, and lifestyle in general.  

I’m also trying to apply this new approach to my parenting in the way I respond to my child’s experiences and expressions of emotions. It sounds cheesy, but through continuing to chip away at Pilates and challenge me to stop “pushing through” I’ve learnt a whole new way of engaging with the world, which requires a lot more self-awareness and emotion regulation to stay in the moderate zone/ the grey space, the middle ground.  

Could I have learnt this through therapy? Yes, absolutely. Would that have been as effective? Perhaps, but I think not. I think Pilates was the door to this pathway and a useful place to start. Do I think Pilates can replace therapy or vice versa? No, but I think there is magic in the combo and I think this combination could be particularly useful to our veteran population. 

Why would this work for veterans? 

ADF members have a unique capacity to push themselves beyond their limits. This can lead to the highest of heights in achievement and personal growth. However, in long-term wellbeing, this can become problematic for one’s health, to continue to override the body’s signals for what it needs.  

Sooner or later, the body has a way of making you stop, be that response from your immune system, physical pain, or many other examples. The problem can be compounded rather than overcome by pushing through. I not only see this with physical injuries but with mental health too. Holding out from accessing support to keep pushing through on one’s own, to the point where there really is a significant crisis (a suicide attempt, being arrested, marriage breakdowns, car accidents, near misses, disconnection from friends). Telling yourself, “I’m okay, it’s not that bad, I don’t need support. We are social beings, we all need a mate to stand by us so this way of coping is counterintuitive, yet to those that have been there, it feels like the only way at the time.  

 What’s this got to do with therapy? 

When you repeatedly override messages or signals from your body, you learn to switch off from noticing these over time. You learn not to feel them, thereby, in some ways, not being limited by them. This can be convenient in the short term. Over time, you might not even feel your body much. This is not necessarily a choice or an intentional coping mechanism. For me, as I described, it was an active cognitive process in response to physical pain, which I viewed as inconvenient.  

However, if we are referring to the aftermath of trauma or the accumulation of trauma across the lifespan this can be a very automatic, non-cognitive and self-protective mechanism.  If the body houses the memories and experiences of great distress, then in many ways it can make sense not to have to engage with that, especially if the distress is so high that it’s not possible to function while connected to it.  

In this way, the disconnection can serve a purpose, yet it does come with consequences that can also be difficult to live with. When you can’t feel subtle cues in your body, how do you know when low-level signs of anxiety are starting to stir, how do you recognise mild irritation before it builds up? How do you notice how you feel in different situations? Perhaps it feels more manageable not to know. Perhaps, understandably so, you don’t want to have to feel these feelings. Perhaps you don’t even know it’s happening.  

But as I mentioned, the body has a way of overruling this function, or the function caps out. We may experience things like anger outbursts and panic attacks and feel as if they went from 0-100 in a split second. Sometimes they do in the case of unexpected triggers, yet sometimes we have not been able to notice the subtle cues in the lead-up that was our body signalling our discomfort to us. We miss the opportunity to do something different to help regulate our experience at this moment and change the outcome.  

Knowing how to listen to your body allows you to notice what it is that it is signalling and how you might be feeling. This gives us choices. Choices in how we respond, choice in how we react to situations and to our loved ones. Hearing our bodies’ signals gives us the opportunity to regulate our emotions, sensations, urges and cravings before they get to a point where they become unmanageable. This won’t always be the case. Not everything is experienced at a level that feels manageable, but some things can. Some experiences can feel more manageable if we notice they are coming up earlier and have more opportunities to attend to them. 

So how do we go about changing this? How do we get to the part where we have more choices? We start by connecting with the body. Connecting with the body, especially after trauma, can be overwhelming because there can be such strong emotions. I would advise that you seek the guidance of a trauma therapist if you have experienced body trauma and are preparing to reconnect with the body so this can be done in a safe and manageable way.  

Pilates can be a way to safely focus on the body through muscles, before trying to process emotions and focusing on more distressing content. Learning to listen to the body slowly over time, helps us understand our experience and then in turn express our experience and communicate it to others, whether that be in therapy, in the moment, or in our daily relationships.  

What’s the goal/ the outcome/the hope?

If we can connect with ourselves safely then we are more able to connect in meaningful ways with those who are close to us. When we experience the shutting off of parts of our experience, we often experience that same disconnect in our relationship with others. How can we read the signals in the bodies of those around us if our own signal reading capacity is switched off or toned down? 

This is not a one size fits all approach. We do not all respond to stresses and trauma by shutting down and implementing avoidance. If we do, we might not use those coping mechanisms in all circumstances either. We are complex beings. 

If you are nodding your head in self-recognition as you read parts of this, then you know what I’m on about. Pilates, have a think about giving it a go. I am directing my challenge to you… learn an alternative to cracking on, learn how to sit with, to tolerate the frustration of your body having needs. In the end, perhaps you will learn how to respect yourself in a whole new way and work in unison with your body rather than overcome it…. Then we can start to work on learning to respond to your emotional needs and the emotional needs of the ones you love. That’s where the therapy comes in and the magic of this combo really plays out. Pilates can be a great foundation for further therapy and a great tool to change the way you engage with life. 


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