A life changing event sparked Brittany Hixenbaugh’s quest for mental and physical health
For her, it’s finding the right balance of body and soul.
- Written byAmber Klinck
- Photographed byJeff Berting
Brittany Hixenbaugh’s warm and bubbly persona is both grounding and energizing. She greets you with the familiarity of an old friend. Her candor and enthusiasm make her incredibly easy to talk to. This zest for life is something that has been a part of Brittany since she was a child, with dance serving as her preferred form of expression.
“My mom says there’s a picture of me dancing on a table at Chuck E. Cheese’s for my 3rd birthday,” Brittany notes. “Ever since then she threw me into dance classes. I think I’ve done every organized sport there is, but I always went back to dance.”
Movement and athleticism continued to be a driving force in Brittany’s life until a tragic car accident during her senior year of college resulted in the death of her father and a long and trying road to recovery—both physically and emotionally—for Brittany. Through the support of friends and family, the influence of physical trainers and her reconnection to health and fitness, Brittany has found herself again.
And now, whether it’s during one of her group cycle classes at Afterburn Fitness or a one-on-one personal training session, Brittany is opening up about her struggles with PTSD and depression in an effort to raise awareness and inspire healthy healing.
Growing up in Palos Verdes, Brittany was an active beachgoer—often surfing, kayaking or hiking. When the time came for college, she hoped to major in dance. But after a little nudging from her father, Brittany opted to work toward a communications major and business minor from the University of Arizona.
While on a trip back to school during her senior year of college, Brittany and her father were in the accident. The SUV they were driving flipped three times. Brittany’s father was killed instantly. The car landed on the left side of Brittany’s body, causing severe head trauma and bruising. Miraculously, the only bone she broke was her pinky finger.
Waking up in the hospital after being heavily sedated, Brittany was unable to see. “It started off just blurry when I woke up in the hospital room. I kept saying, ‘I can’t see, I can’t see.’”
“That’s what brought me back, was feeling good about myself. You don’t realize how much the physical and mental aspect go hand-in-hand.”
She left the hospital not knowing if the damaged nerve that was causing her loss of vision had been bruised or severed. “A week or two after the accident I noticed an improvement, so I just held onto the hope that it’s getting better and hopefully was not going to be permanent,” Brittany notes.
In addition to waiting on the improvement of her eyesight, Brittany was suffering from vertigo. “I remember for days there were times where [I thought], ‘I’m just going to sit here and close my eyes, because closing my eyes is better than having them open,’” she explains.
While navigating through these challenges, she was also thinking about how to complete her senior year. “I went back to school three weeks after my accident,” she notes. With finals ahead of her, Brittany opted to complete her studies rather than postpone them. “I just knew that my dad would want me to finish. So I did it, and I did it with the highest GPA that I had out of all four years.”
After many months of healing from the physical trauma of the accident, Brittany had yet to deal with the emotional effects of what had happened. “The physical part was so scary, and now it’s the mental part that’s scary. I said, ‘I don’t want this.’ That’s when I finally [sought] help—because it was debilitating. My post-traumatic stress, my anxiety and depression … the perfect word is ‘impending doom.’ You feel constantly like something bad is going to happen. I had fear all the time.”
For Brittany, true healing meant focusing on both the physical and the emotional. “The last time I remembered that I was happy, I was dancing. At that time barre classes had become the new fad. I though, ‘OK, well I’m a dancer; I’ll try this class out.’”
She also got a personal trainer. “Christine Sullivan—she’s amazing. When I talked to her about my accident, there was no judgment. She would just listen. And she really pushed me. I started to put on some muscle, and I felt good about myself. That’s what brought me back, was feeling good about myself. You don’t realize how much the physical and mental aspect go hand-in-hand.”
Through therapy and the reconnection to her physical well-being, Brittany started getting back in touch with who she was. And now she incorporates her journey while teaching others. In addition to being a special education teacher for kindergarten and first-grade students, Brittany teaches cycling and offers personal training at Afterburn Fitness.
During her classes, she talks about the importance of mental health, utilizing her personal story as an anchor.
“People always praise me [for helping them], but it’s actually a selfish relationship because they’re actually doing me the service. I’m making them accountable, but I’m also accountable now.” By being open about overcoming her own mental and physical hurdles, Brittany emphasizes the importance of a healthy body and soul. And if that helps even one of her students, it’s well worth it.
BRITTANY’S YEAR IN HEALTH
“I wake up at 4 a.m., I get my coffee, and then I have a habit of getting back into bed and listening to my playlists. Then I’m on social media. Is that crazy at 4 a.m.? I’m out the door by 4:45 to teach a 5 a.m. class. And then depending on the day, I’ll train a client at 6 a.m. or I’ll go take a class. I bird bath, throw on some clothes, and I teach kindergarten and first grade till 3 p.m. After, if I haven’t gotten a workout, I’ll take a Pilates or a spin class, and then I like to go home, cook a meal and watch trashy reality TV.”
“I don’t know moderation, and I feel like after 30 years I finally understand what moderation is. I love food. Right now, I’ve been really good about eating clean. I’m doing no dairy. I’m eating a lot of meats, vegetables and fruit, and I’m trying to eliminate all processed foods.”
“The people I coach. Not only are they moms and dads, but they’re moms and dads with full-time jobs [or] stay-at-home moms and dads, balancing it all and then showing up to my 5 a.m. class … that’s inspiration to me. And then there’s Marissa Rivero Mcgrath; her Instagram title is @marissabishhhh.”
“I’m continuing my clean eating. [After seeing] what the nutrition part of clean eating has done for me, I want to keep going. And I’m fascinated with boxing and MMA. I see the dedication and the hard work; I just have so much respect for their artform and what they do.”
“There’s a new churro place in Redondo Beach. I think it’s called The Grail. It’s two churros with ice cream in the middle, and then they roll it in cereal. You could do nuts, sugar, caramel sauces. It’s worth every single calorie. And second, the butter cake from Nick’s in Manhattan. I don’t share; I’ll eat the whole thing.”
Sitting atop the sprawl of a rocking elephant’s back as she lumbers smoothly up the long, steep ramp leading to Amber Fort I realize I have a huge smile on my face. This is why I came to India, I muse: to parade like a pasha in Rajasthan.