Current Projects

In partnership with Barry University and Eva Nowakowski-Sims, PhD: A Grounded Theory of Weightlifting as an Adjunct Intervention for Trauma

A first of its kind qualitative research project exploring weightlifting as an adjunct intervention for trauma. Weightlifting is a feasible, low-risk adjunct intervention that may be an effective short-term treatment for people experiencing trauma related symptoms. The purpose of the study is to explore the processes and elements inherent in the weightlifting experience that facilitate healing. Using a grounded theory approach, we will interview lifters with a self-reported trauma history to elicit in-depth feedback about their experience with weightlifting as a healing strategy, specific elements they found beneficial or barriers to success, as well as thoughts and feelings about including trauma-informed elements to the weightlifting intervention. This will inform the ongoing development of a trauma-informed training manual for coaches/gyms that provide weightlifting training.

We are no longer recruiting for this study. If you are interested in learning more about this and other research efforts, be sure to follow us on Instagram and sign up at the bottom of this page to receive occasional email updates.

In partnership with the Mind-Body Trauma Care Lab at the Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota, Duluth (Research Team Director: Viann Nguyen-Feng, PhD, MPH, LP, RYT): Psychological Wellbeing, Bodily Awareness, and Trauma-Informed Weightlifting

This study seeks to evaluate Trauma-Informed Weight Lifting as an adjunctive treatment for posttraumatic stress symptoms among individuals who currently receive ongoing mental health services. In-community feasibility, acceptability, and preliminary evidence of effectiveness will be explored. Information on participants' levels of psychological wellbeing and bodily awareness will be gathered over time via (1) sessionly quantitative self-report assessments; (2) consultation with participants' care providers and coaches; (3) qualitative interviews.

In partnership with Eva Nowakowski-Sims, Barry University: Trauma Informed Weight Lifting among Trans Students: A Pilot Study

There has been very little research about transgender persons and their needs related to exercise, especially in gym spaces. Exercise and weight lifting has been found to be a transformative experience for trans persons. Yet, there are barriers and transphobic discriminations that trans people experience in gym spaces that prevent them from accessing the benefits of exercise. The purpose of this pilot study is to examine the impact of the trauma informed weight lifting program on gender dysphoria and mental health among trans students. Using a mixed methods design, five trans persons were recruited to participate in a 12-week trauma informed training program. Under the direction of a trauma informed trainer, participants attended group training sessions and shared their experiences with the program and the effects on their mental health and wellbeing. Study findings could offer important insights to inform the development of gender affirming and trauma-informed gym spaces within universities as well as the integration of weight lifting as adjunct interventions for health and wellness.

In partnership with researchers at Barry University and Harvard University: Beyond the Binary: Searching for Gender Affirming and Trauma Informed Gym Spaces

The purpose of this study is to explore how transgender and gender-diverse (TGD) persons experience weight lifting as a healing intervention for trauma and navigate the spaces where they lift using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). IPA was selected due to its idiographic nature and natural alignment with oppression and social justice (Smith et al., 2009), often experienced by TGD persons. An interpretivist paradigm asserts that every individual person constructs their own reality and truth (Creswell & Poth, 2018). As such, this study explored the participants‚Äė understanding of their experiences and how they have made meaning from these experiences. Additionally, the researchers explored the influence of power, privilege, and oppression on the lives of the participants, and how various contextual factors influenced their experiences and interpretations of their experiences.

In partnership with Dana Vigue, Harvard University and Savannah Woods, The New School

  • A literature review to characterize our current understanding of trauma-informed approaches to care and professional interactions, exercise in the treatment of psychological disorders, and weightlifting as an adjunct to therapy for PTSD.

  • An audit of educational and training materials for personal trainers, coaches and other fitness and health professionals to understand: If/how trainers are taught to work with trauma-impacted clients; If/how trainers are taught about vicarious trauma and how to care for themselves; How other professionals (yoga instructors, clinical psychologists, physicians, etc) are taught to work with trauma-impacted clients; and to summarize the "best practices" for trauma-informed interactions and self-care from all of the above disciplines. Potentially provide recommendations for educational materials for trainers.

In partnership with Savannah Woods, The New School: Examining Role Breadth, Efficacy, and Attitudes toward Trauma informed Care in Trainers: What are trainers’ attitudes toward working with weight lifting clients in a trauma informed way?

  • This study seeks to examine changes in attitudes related to trauma informed care as well as clients with a trauma history and the ways in which trainers feel they should or must relate to them. This study also seeks to explore the role that trainers perceive they have in working with clients with a trauma history. Results have implications for the need for this training to be wide ranging as well as the important to empower coaches to feel efficacious in working with a diverse set of clients.

Future Projects

  • Trauma Informed Weight Lifting as an adjunct mental health treatment for adolescents in a residential facility

Our Research Team

Mariah Rooney, MSW, LICSW | Co-Founder & Director of Research

Mariah Rooney is a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in treating the complex challenges that arise as a result of traumatic stress, attachment trauma, intergenerational trauma, and dissociation in children and adults. She is also an adjunct professor in the School of Social Work at Winona State University and a Consultant with the Center for the Treatment of Developmental Trauma Disorders and the American Institutes of Research. As a previous Fellow at the Trauma Center at JRI she received extensive training in trauma and supported various project and research efforts.

Additionally, Mariah has extensive training in trauma-sensitive and culturally-informed movement, yoga and meditation practices through Warriors at Ease, Prison Yoga Project, Insight Prison Project, Mind Body Solutions, and Trauma Sensitive Yoga. Her writing and research has explored posttraumatic outcomes among combat veterans with histories of interpersonal violence, trauma sensitive education, as well as outcomes among traumatized youth in an outpatient setting using a sensory-based intervention. You can see her writing in Bulletproofing the Psyche and in American Military Life in the 21st Century: Social, Cultural, Economic Issues and Trends.

Eva Nowakowski-Sims, PhD, LCSW, MPH, RYT-200 

Eva Nowakowski-Sims is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Barry University. Dr. Nowakowski-Sims graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and went on to get a Masters degree in Public Health from the University of South Florida and a Masters degree and Doctor of Philosophy degree in Social Work from Barry University. She is a licensed clinical social worker and a registered yoga teacher. Dr. Nowakowski-Sims has more than 20 years of clinical experience working with individuals, families, and groups impacted by trauma. Her clinical practice emphasizes the connection between the mind, body, and spirit to transform and grow the higher self and social consciousness through traditional psychotherapy and the practice of yoga.

Dr Nowakowski-Sims’ professional and research interests include youth violence, mind-body-spirit interventions for the treatment of trauma, and program evaluation. Her current research agenda focuses on trauma and the adjunct treatment options that reduce the negative symptoms of trauma. Recent publications include: holistic wellness for women in recovery, soul work in social work, and group exercise as an adjunct treatment for persons in recovery.

Dr Nowakowski-Sims teaches Masters and doctoral courses in the research and trauma sequences and has shared her knowledge in published articles and presented research findings at conferences locally, nationally, and internationally. She offers consultation throughout the community in the areas of trauma-informed organizations and mindful movement as an adjunct healing method for persons who have experienced trauma.

Dana Vigue

Dana Vigue (she/her/hers) was born and raised in rural Maine before moving to the greater Boston area to study biology and chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is currently an MD-PhD candidate at Harvard Medical School where she is pursuing her PhD in Medical Anthropology. At the conclusion of her degree program, she'll begin residency training in Emergency Medicine with emphasis on human trafficking prevention and response.

Dana attended her first bodybuilding competition when she was two weeks old (although she admits she slept through it). She grew up accompanying her mother, a bodybuilder and powerlifter, and her father, a bodybuilder, to the gym and competitions. After becoming a weightlifter herself, Dana began to reflect on the prevalence of trauma among weightlifters, and the pivotal role of weightlifting in her own life and the lives of her parents and family friends. She became particularly interested in how strength training might draw upon trauma-informed principles to make weightlifting a safer, more accessible resource for people who have survived trauma, especially for Queer & Trans Black, Indigenous, People of Color with disabilities.

In her dissertation work, Dana is interested in how trauma-informed approaches to weightlifting can transform gyms into therapeutic sites. By understanding trauma-informed strength coaching as a form of caregiving, she hopes to explore how weightlifting can be integrated holistically with psychological and medical care for people who have survived trauma.


Savannah Woods, MA

Savannah Woods is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at The New School for Social Research in New York. She holds a bachelor’s degree in film studies from Columbia University and a master’s degree in psychology from The New School. She is interested in resilience research, adolescent development, and the ways in which physical activity and sport can aid in healing from trauma. Before graduate school Savannah spent 10 summers leading adolescents on canoe trips in Northern Ontario and saw firsthand the power of land based education and its ability to empower youth and help them grow into confident and resilient adults. Savannah is interested in the ways which sport, weightlifting, and running are able to increase self-efficacy, agency, and improve future outlook for individuals recovering from trauma and substance abuse as well as how physical activity acts as a preventative measure through increasing resilience and positive self concept. In her free time Savannah can be found running, skiing, and being outdoors as much as possible.

The Mind-Body Trauma Care Lab, directed by Dr. Viann Nguyen-Feng, is housed in the Department of Psychology, Counseling/Clinical Area at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. The lab integrates several domains: psychology and public health, mental and physical health, mind and body. The Mind-Body Trauma Care Lab aims to increase access to holistic psychotherapeutic care, particularly among in-need groups such as those who have had potentially traumatic life experiences. This research addresses access to care issues in two main ways: (1) bringing wellbeing-focused, trauma-informed interventions (e.g., trauma-sensitive yoga, mental-physical healthcare integration, context-inclusive approaches) to individuals who might not otherwise access them; (2) developing and implementing interventions that broaden psychotherapy's reach (e.g., technological, community-based) while evaluating what works best and for whom. Ultimately, the lab's vision is to improve visibility of holistic and trauma-informed mental healthcare. For more information, please see the lab website: https://MindBodyTrauma.Care

Meet some more members of the Mind-Body Trauma Care Lab research team: Julia Smith, Xinran "Sherry" Wang, Cody Soulinthavong

Viann N. Nguyen-Feng, PhD, MPH, LP, RYT

Viann Nguyen-Feng [vee-anne win-fang] (she/her) is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. She serves as core faculty in the counseling/clinical masters program and directs the Mind-Body Trauma Care Lab. Viann completed her 200-hour Registered Yoga Teacher training in Virginia Beach in 2012 and is participating in the 2023 Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Facilitators cohort. As a short-lived intercollegiate athlete and a recreation center facilities management staff for four years, Viann has spent countless hours in spaces that promoted strengths-focused and body-powered movement, for better or for worse. For more information, please see her bio on the lab website: https://MindBodyTrauma.Care/bio

Casey Orozco-Poore

Casey Orozco-Poore is a queer, non-binary person raised in the Bay Area, California. They graduated from Brown University with a degree in neurobiology. They are now a Harvard Medical School student, who served as chair of LGBTQIA and Allies at Harvard Medical School, and has been active in medical education on LGBTQ health at a national level. They have been studying the neurobiological risks of ‚Äúnerve-sparing‚ÄĚ clitoral reduction surgeries non-consensually performed on young intersex children and mobilized this research for shifts in hospital and public health policy. As a University of California, Los Angeles, South American Program in HIV Research (SAPHIR) fellow, they are generating research and supporting projects with trans communities in Lima, Peru on the themes of resilience, resistance, and solidarity within the arts, activism and mutual aid. They plan to become a child neurologist, with an emphasis on affirming neurodiversity and non-carceral models of brain and mind healthcare.

Elizabeth Lee (she/her) is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota Duluth in the Master of Arts in Psychological Science (MAPS) program, counseling/clinical track. Elizabeth graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in May 2020 with a Bachelor of Sciences in Psychology and minor in Neuroscience. While at the University of Minnesota, she volunteered at the Aurora Center as a direct service advocate for victim/survivors of sexual assault, relationship violence, sexual harassment, and stalking. After graduating, she started a position at the Avanti Center, a DBT-based youth residential facility, as a Residential Counselor for adolescents experiencing mental health crises. She was then promoted to be a Unit Supervisor at the Avanti Center and coached employees on behavior management techniques before she transitioned into the MAPS program.

With these experiences, she has developed an interest in conceptualizing how mindfulness-based techniques can serve those who have experienced various forms of abuse and trauma. Elizabeth started her journey at the Mind-Body Trauma Care Lab in summer 2021 to expand her research skills and knowledge. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, photography, yoga, and staying active."


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