Yoga as Therapy: Positive Effects on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

By Ashley Curry, Yoga Instructor, Prime of Life Yoga, re:YOGA Staff + Writer

 

PTSD_Dictionary

Over 20 million people in the United States alone [1] pursue yoga for its stress-relieving effects and to improve their well-being, but for people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the practice can offer powerful methods for coping with the effects of trauma.

 

Having personally experienced PTSD for many years, I can say with certainty that yoga brought tremendous healing to all areas of my mental and physical health.

 

 

What is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition caused by a singular traumatic life event, a recurring event, or multiple events. For many with PTSD, they’re haunted by an overwhelming perception of having become an anxiety-ridden mine field, drowning in a sea of depression, and caught in a web of perpetual uneasiness. People who are symptomatic of PTSD often relive the event(s) that traumatized them through nightmares, flashbacks, or triggers. They also avoid circumstances that remind them of their trauma, have transformed beliefs about themselves, others, and the world, feel on alert, struggle with insomnia, and/or possess an inability to concentrate [2]. Sadly, this crippling condition affects around 5 million people in the United States annually [3].

 

Trauma affects people differently. In my case, I developed a deep separation inside in order to protect myself. Frankly, I didn’t even realize just how disconnected I was until I began my practices in asana (yoga postures), pranayama (breath control), and dhyana (meditation). These powerful tools help to re-establish the essential mind-body connection and were key in my healing process. When I began practicing yoga, it forced me to become present, confront what demons lurked within, breathe and learn calmness, and most importantly, reconnect with my surroundings in a meaningful way. To say that yoga helped me is an understatement.

 

 

How can yogic practices improve the quality of life for those experiencing devastating symptoms?

Sat Bir S. Khalsa, Ph.D, lead researcher for a study on yoga’s effects on veterans and PTSD, and an assistant professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School adeptly noted:

 

“What we believe is happening, is that through the control of attention on a target — the breath, the postures, the body — that kind of awareness generates changes in the brain, in the limbic system, and these changes in thinking focus more in the moment, less in the past, and it quiets down the anxiety-provoking chatter going on in the head. People become less reactive and the hormone-related stress cycle starts to calm down.” [4]

 

During the study, researchers discovered that these “anxious, reactive, and stress” symptoms of PTSD were improved after just ten brief weeks of yoga postures, breathing exercises, and meditation completed twice a week and practiced daily on their own for 15 minutes [4].

 

 

How about stress?

Stress can be used in a positive way like when we need to overcome obstacles, but when it is constantly looming overhead, the stress response can lead to health problems; such as high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease, and can also quash the immune system, which increases the susceptibility to illnesses [5].

 

For people with PTSD, constant stress can adversely affect their physical and mental well-being due to overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response). Harvard Medical School cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson recognized in the 1970s that deep breathing switches the parasympathetic nervous system on (which is responsible for “rest-and-digest” activities) and can thus combat stress and the effects of stress [5].  By taking deep belly breaths, the lungs can take in a full range of air, whereas shallow breathing limits the lower portion of the lungs from doing so. This shallow breathing can add to feeling “short of breath and anxious” [5]. Thus, adding simple breath control practices, particularly slow exhalations, can reduce day-to-day stress and even aid in combating more severe symptoms such as those experienced with PTSD.

 

Knowledge, experience, and heart.

The dedicated team members at re:YOGA Therapy and Wellness have made it our mission to pass on these types of lasting change on to our students. By pooling our knowledge of physical exercises, breath work, and meditation practices, we’ve created a range of therapeutic services that have resulted in extraordinary transformations. Some of our services include classes taught to adolescents and adults struggling with mental health disorders at rehabilitation centers (Paradigm and Passages, Malibu), private yoga therapy sessions for individuals, small group supportive classes at our studio, as well as community classes taught to the public.

 

If you or a loved one is experiencing challenges from anxiety or trauma, contact us to see how we can help you rediscover and regain your quality of life.

 

Blessings to your health,
Ashley Curry + the re:YOGA Team

 

 

References
[1] Yoga Journal. 5 December 2012. 14 May 2016.
[2] PTSD: National Center for PTSD. 13 August 2015.
[3] Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 2007.
[4] Zimmerman, Rachel. wbur’s CommonHealth Reform and Reality. 8 December 2010.
[5] Guide, The Family Health. Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant  stress response. 18 March 2016.