Most of us experience stress in our daily lives—stress that drains us makes us cranky, tired, sore, or just plain worn out. Many of us come to our mats for this very reason—to rejuvenate, revive, and reinvigorate our bodies, minds, and souls.
But there exists a more insidious form of stress—the kind that more deeply rooted in your body. The kind that removes you from reality, and fills sufferers with relentless pain, anxiety, or simply makes us numb. This kind of stress is more deeply debilitating and confronts us with a sense of constant fragility and hyperarousal.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a major public health issue with a worldwide prevalence of 6.8 percent. In the United States, this condition affects nearly 3.6 percent of adults in a given year, with the highest rates among females (5.2 percent) compared to males (1.8 percent).
PTDS develops as a mind and body response to an extremely adverse and stressful event, also known as a trauma. People who experience PTSD experience a range of symptoms such as:
• Persistent, frightening thoughts and memories of the event(s) (re-experiencing)
• Sleep problems (such as insomnia or nightmares)
• Feeling detached or numb (dissociation)
• Hyperarousal and excessive startle response
These symptoms are often accompanied by diagnoses of depression and other forms of anxiety, and in severe forms, PTSD can significantly impair a person’s ability to function at work, at home, and socially (National Institute of Mental Health).
While there are numerous treatment modalities including pharmacological and psychotherapeutic approaches, neither method shows high rates of efficacy and mainstream trauma treatment can leave much to be desired for many who only experience intermittent or partial relief from debilitating symptoms.
But complementary treatment approaches are becoming increasingly part of the dialogue surrounding the treatment of PTSD:
“We just did a study on yoga for people with PTSD. We found that yoga was more effective than any medicine that people have studied up to now. That doesn’t mean that yoga cures it, but yoga makes a substantial difference in the right direction.”— Bessel Van Der Kolk (Side Effects Editor, 2015).
Recently, one study showed yoga may help the brain repattern the way it reacts to stimuli, downregulating the stress response and positively impacting PTSD and comorbid depression and anxiety symptoms. Participants in the yoga test group showed decreases in not only reexperiencing symptoms but hyperarousal symptoms as well. (Mitchell, et al., 2014).
An additional research study found that yoga may be so powerful that it not only assists in recovery but actually bring about a full recovery for some affected by PTSD. This study showed that participants who completed 10 sessions of yoga, showed significant decreases in PTSD symptom severity and an even greater likelihood of loss of PTSD diagnosis entirely. Researchers also observed significant decreases in engagement in negative tension-reduction activities such as self-injurious behaviors as well as reductions in dissociative and depressive symptoms. The study concluded that the frequency of continuing yoga practice was predictive of greater decreases in PTSD and depression symptom severity, as well as a greater likelihood of a complete loss of PTSD diagnosis! This seems to indicate that the greatest long-term benefits are derived from more frequent, if not habitual yoga practice (Rhodes, Spinazzola, & van der Kolk, 2016).
Yoga might not only help people heal from PTSD and its comorbidities but that it may help to strengthen the overall stress-response system to build resilience. (Side Effects Editor, 2015).
Yet another study demonstrated even broader positive effects of yoga for PTSD, not only improvements in symptomology but also, yoga participants showed improvements in measures of sleep, positive affect, perceived stress, anxiety, stress, and resilience (Jindani, Turner, & Khalsa, 2015). This suggests that yoga might not only help people heal from PTSD and its comorbidities but that it may actually help to strengthen the overall stress-response system to build resilience.
That’s right—empirical studies are not only confirming what every yogi intuitively and anecdotally knows—that yoga helps our minds and bodies recover from stress. But perhaps until now, we had no way of confirming the true power this practice has for helping those whose lives have been transformed by trauma recover from this debilitating disorder and let their true resilience shine for a life lived better.
MINDFULNESS AND THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION
It is theorized that the amazingly powerful results that researchers studying yoga for PTSD are turning out occurs mainly through the mechanism of mindfulness and the mind-body connection.
Mindfulness involves directing and focusing one’s attention to the present moment in an observant and non-judgmental way. The skills derived from this experience, which include focused attention, nonjudgmental acceptance of internal experiences and reduced autonomic reactivity, may be helpful in counteracting pathological responses to trauma in those affected by PTDS. Thus, it is theorized that mindfulness is a potentially important tool for creating psychological change (Lang, 2017).
Mindfulness is a potentially important tool for creating psychological change.
Yoga interventions including breathing, relaxation, and meditation capitalize on mindfulness, reducing not only biological measures of stress such as cortisol and blood pressure, but also, by reducing the allostatic load induced by stress and also increasing parasympathetic (relaxation system) activity, yoga directly reduce amygdala (emotion center of the brain) hyperactivation. This shift in the balance of the autonomic nervous system to the parasympathetic branch has been observed both in individuals with and without PTSD, and is a crucial element of PTSD recovery, helping to rehabilitate the mind and bodies debilitating and habitual response to stress. Thus, yoga helps us to reprogram our minds and bodies for greater resilience! (Cramer, Anheyer, Saha, & Dobos, 2018).
In the coming years, hopefully, yoga for post-traumatic stress disorder will increasingly become part of not only the dialogue surrounding PTSD but also increasingly become part of the cure for it!
“Trauma constantly confronts us with our fragility and with man’s inhumanity to man but also with our extraordinary resilience.”— Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
This month in recognition of Post-Traumatic Stress Awareness, we honor the extraordinary resilience of trauma survivors and the ancient mind-body practices which help us not only to heal from stress but to become more resilient to it!
Aubree is a yoga teacher, artist, and writer. YYT 200, owner of Root To Rise Holistics (@roottoriseholistics on Instagram).
National Institute of Mental Health (2017). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. United States Department of Human Services. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd.shtml
Cramer, H., Anheyer, D., Saha, F. J., & Dobos, G. (2018). Yoga for posttraumatic stress disorder – a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC psychiatry, 18(1), 72. doi:10.1186/s12888-018-1650-x
Side Effects Editor. (2015) Childhood Trauma Leads to Brains Wired for Fear. Wfyi Indianapolis. https://www.sideeffectspublicmedia.org/post/childhood-trauma-leads-brains-wired-fear
Mitchell, K. S., Dick, A. M., DiMartino, D. M., Smith, B. N., Niles, B., Koenen, K. C., & Street, A. (2014). A pilot study of a randomized controlled trial of yoga as an intervention for PTSD symptoms in women. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 27(2), 121-128. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/jts.21903
Jindani, F., Turner, N., & Khalsa, S. B. S. (2015). A yoga intervention for posttraumatic stress: A preliminary randomized control trial. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2015.
Rhodes, A., Spinazzola, J., & van der Kolk, B. (2016). Yoga for adult women with chronic PTSD: A long-term follow-up study. The journal of alternative and complementary medicine, 22(3), 189-196.
Lang, A. J. (2017). Mindfulness in PTSD treatment. Current Opinion in Psychology, 14, 40-43. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352250X16301609