Reserch Topic: The Impact of Physical Activities and Sports on Traumatized Individuals


Trauma and its symptoms among various groups has been a critical problem around the world. Trauma and its consequences have been under study for quite a long time now. Research found that among different age groups, adults and children are the most in number who suffer trauma and its symptoms (Straussner & Calnan, 2014). Researching the complex behaviors and situations as well as personalities of traumatized individuals, researchers have found that trauma has different effects on different groups of people based on age, race, gender, cultures and types of traumatic events they have experienced. Straussner and Calnan documented several differences in the effects of trauma among men and women. For example they found that men experience trauma two times more likely compared to women while women have fifteen times more chances to develop posttraumatic stress disorder. Similarly they also found differences in causes as well as consequences of trauma among children, adults, immigrants and other such groups.

The more the differences in causes, and consequences of trauma, the more different approaches are required to treat individuals for these consequences. Hence research has identified a number of different therapy approaches to treat traumatized individuals. Straussner and Calnan (2014) carry out a good review of literature to identify different therapy approaches to treat individuals for trauma symptoms during different stages of life cycle. Their list includes play therapy, Child-Parent Psychotherapy (CPP), Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT). Similarly, Psychoeducation, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure Therapy, Desensitization and Behavioral Flooding, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Narrative Therapy, Group Therapy and Medications are identified to be effective with adults. Moreover, the authors reported that CBT has been found as effective with older adults too.

Recent research has been focusing sports and other physical activities as effective therapy approach that can help in the recovery of traumatic individuals belonging to different groups and ages. Caddick and Smith (2014) have cited several sources as verifying the significance of competitive, rule-based, and structured activity sports and other physical activities used for energy expenditure like recreation and exercise activities, in treating trauma symptoms among individuals who are disabled or suffering from some kind of mental illness. Burke and Utley (2013) found that challenging physical activities are very effective in treating traumatized war veterans (soldiers). They verified the effective results of a 9-day climbing activity with treatment of trauma among Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans and established the positive impact of this activity on those soldiers under study. Findings from these and many other researches significantly motivated the researcher to analyze literature for implications of sports and physical activities among at-risk youth.

The current project is about the impacts of physical activities and sports on traumatized youth. The purpose of this research is to find the impact of various sports and physical activities on mental and behavioral health of young individuals suffering from some kind of trauma. The project will also review the available literature to describe how physical activities and sports impact traumatized individuals and what kinds of physical activities are more effective. This project is significant because the findings of this review can help practitioners and MnM type projects to understand the importance and significance of physical activities and sports in the treatment efforts designed for traumatic individuals. This review will try to establish that sports and other physical activities can help reduce trauma symptoms among traumatized individuals by promoting self-regulation, self-determination, and attachment among them.

Trauma and its types

Straussner and Calnan (2014) defined trauma as an emotionally painful, distressful, and/or shocking experience with long term negative effects on one’s mental and physical health. The authors cited McGinley and Varchevker to define traumatic event as the one which results in tremendous stress to overcome the individual’s psychological ability to recover from it. They explained that trauma is often considered as similar to the objective cause of the trauma however, it is a subjective concept which is more related to the perceived impact, wound, or hurt caused to the individual.

Based on the nature of traumatic event, the trauma experience and the resulting symptoms, trauma can be classified either as Large T trauma or small t trauma. Large-T traumas include natural disasters as well as man-made disasters like hurricanes, floods, wildfires, nuclear disasters, deadly car accidents, violence, and several others. This type of trauma affect individuals, groups, communities, and families. Large-T traumas can also include complex traumas. Complex traumas are caused by prolonged duration of traumatic events or series of multiple traumatic events for example on-going interpersonal violence, child physical abuse, several years of sexual abuse, prolonged war situations, and long prevailed terrorism activities. D’Andrea, Bergholz, Fortunato, and Spinazzola (2013) described complex trauma as often occurring in the context of caregiving environment and involves continued exposure to traumatic events. On the other hand, small-t traumas also called as micro-traumas common traumas experienced by majority, like being chased by someone, bullied at work place or school, severe poverty, childbirth, racial, gender, or religion discrimination, and sexual orientation. Micro-trauma (small-t) are often ignored but can cause much psychological pain and long term damage (Straussner & Calnan, 2014).

Impacts of Trauma

Trauma can cause many different traumatic impacts on individuals who experience it. Trauma victims may feel the world as unpredictable and unsafe where they feel disempowered, helpless, psychologically damaged and defective (Janof-Bolman as cited in Straussner & Calnan, 2014). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is another impact of exposure to trauma which was first identified among veterans of war (APA as cited in Straussner & Calnan, 2014). The authors also found survivor guilt as another type of impact of large-T trauma as identified in the literature. D’Andrea et al (2013) found behavior dysregulation, interpersonal disturbance, disturbance of attention and information processing, and somatic dysregulation appearing as a result of complex trauma. These impacts can get severe to convert into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Major Depressive Disorder and even more than these.

Impact of Sports and Physical Activities on Traumatized Individuals

Sports has been very effective in reducing trauma symptoms and improving mental health and behaviors among traumatized individuals including at-risk youth. Several research efforts have established this finding through experimenting sports and physical activities with traumatized groups. There are several sources establishing the importance of sports and physical activities in promoting active coping among traumatized individuals. D’Andrea, Bergholz, Fortunato, and Spinazzola (2013) used trauma informed sports with complexly traumatized young girls in residential treatment centers. The research found significant improvements in mental health and behaviors of trauma victims (adolescent girls) in six residential treatment facilities. Similarly, Branta and Goodway (as cited by D’ Andrea et Al, 2013) also observed improved behaviors and decreased aggression among at-risk youth as a result of introducing trauma-informed physical activities in the classroom. Bratton, Ray, Rhine, and Jones (2005) conducted a meta-analysis of 93 different research efforts to assess the ability of play therapy and to determine the factors that might be influencing its effectiveness and found play therapy as a workable approach to treat trauma among children. Bratton et al (2005) investigations further revealed that play therapy conducted by parents has more positive effects compared to play therapy activities conducted by professionals. This explains the significance of parental involvement which is a stronger source of social support, in combination with physical activities in helping treatment of trauma. The factor of social support may also be significant to help to at risk youth. Caddick and Smith (2014) reviewed 11 research studies on the impact of physical activities and sports on the psychological well-being of soldiers after war and found significantly positive impacts. Another significant source to evidence the effectiveness of physical activities is Burke and Utley (2013). This is a primary research based on experiences of traumatized soldiers in the war of Afghanistan and Iraq who participated in a 9 day activity of climbing a high mountain. The findings of this research also strongly support the use of challenging physical activities with soldiers experiencing war trauma and physical disabilities. This can be concluded that trauma-informed sports have significantly positive impacts on mental and behavioral health of traumatized youth. Moreover, the positive impacts of challenging physical activities on war veterans and those of play therapy on children also signal that these activities too might have implications for at risk and traumatized youth.

Physical activities and sports help improve mental health by increasing self-regulation among individuals. While analyzing the positive impact of trauma-informed sports on traumatized youth, D’Andrea, Bergholz, Fortunato, and Spinazzola (2013) explained that therapeutic communication styles of coaches provide youth with an opportunity for self-regulation. In trauma-informed sports, players are taught to continue their struggle despite frustrations and they are encouraged by redefining goals and success to help their emotional regulation. Thus trauma-informed sports can be modified to help traumatized youth to overcome behavioral dysregulation.

Physical activities and sports enhance self-determination and bring traumatized individuals back to life. Burke and Utley (2013) studied the experiences of traumatized war veterans during a 9 days climb activity and found that challenging physical activities helped improve self-determination among the traumatized veterans. The research explained that the veterans continued their struggle to achieve their goal of reaching the top despite their physical limitations. The traumatized individuals viewed this challenge of climbing as an exercise in determination and inner strength. Deci and Ryan (as cited in Burke and Utley, 2013) explained that, “when people are self-determined, they experience a sense of autonomy (i.e. a sense of volition and a willing engagement in one’s behavior), competence (i.e. feeling effective in one’s actions and capable of meeting the challenges of everyday life), and relatedness (i.e. feelings of connection and belongingness with others)”.  These findings establish the role of challenging physical activities like climbing in increasing self-determination among trauma victims and hence reducing trauma symptoms among them.

Trauma informed sports and challenging physical activities promote attachment among traumatized individuals. As described earlier, challenging physical activities improve self-determination among trauma victims which promotes a sense of relatedness, and feelings of connection and belongingness with others (Burke & Utley, 2013). Posttraumatic stress disorder and depression often results in social isolation and avoidance of expressing trauma feelings with others. Otter and Currie (2004) while observing the impacts of community exercise program for war veterans found that community exercise program promoted a sense of connectedness among the traumatized veterans. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is often characterized by social isolation and avoidance of expressing trauma feelings with others. However, this research found enhanced social connectedness and attachment among the veterans during this community exercise program. For example, the participants often used to meet up at coffee after the exercise. This proves the importance of group exercise program in promoting social connectedness and attachment regulation among traumatized individuals and hence can show positive implications if used with at risk youth to help them recover from their trauma. Caddick and Smith (2014) through a systematic review of literature on impacts of sport and physical activities with traumatized victims found that social connectedness to be one of the important outcomes that helped recovery from traumatic symptoms.

Findings and Conclusion

This review established significantly positive impact of sports and physical activities on traumatized individuals. The findings suggest that sports and physical activities help traumatized individuals by promoting self-determination, self-regulation, attachment and social support among them. All these characteristics are directly related to coping from traumatic symptoms. Moreover, sports and physical activities are found to be reducing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms among traumatized individuals. Hence practitioners and clinicians can be advised to confidently include sports and physical activities in their therapy practices.

This review project is directly relevant to MnM vision and mission as it provides evidence on significance of a therapy approach that can be confidently incorporated into MnM project. This review will help MnM incorporate physical activities and sports into their program in order to avail its benefits in treatment of trauma symptoms among at risk youth. Although some of the findings are based on studies with age groups other than youth (the target group of MnM project), however, the encouraging outcomes of these studies regarding self-determination, self-regulation and attachment signal MnM that the findings of these studies might have implications for at risk youth and must be further explored.


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Bratton, S. C., Ray, D., Rhine, T., & Jones, L. (2005). The Efficacy of Play Therapy With Children: A Meta-Analytic Review of Treatment Outcomes. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36(4), 376.

Burke, S. M., & Utley, A. (2013). Climbing towards recovery: investigating physically injured combat veterans’ psychosocial response to scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro. Disability and rehabilitation, 35(9), 732-739.

Caddick, N., & Smith, B. (2014). The impact of sport and physical activity on the well-being of combat veterans: A systematic review. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 15(1), 9-18.

D’Andrea, W., Bergholz, L., Fortunato, A., & Spinazzola, J. (2013). Play to the whistle: A pilot investigation of a sports-based intervention for traumatized girls in residential treatment. Journal of family violence28(7), 739-749.

Otter, L., & Currie, J. (2004). A long time getting home: Vietnam Veterans’ experiences in a community exercise rehabilitation programme. Disability and Rehabilitation, 26(1), 27-34.

Straussner, S. L. A., & Calnan, A. J. (2014). Trauma through the life cycle: A review of current literature. Clinical Social Work Journal, 42(4), 323-335.