Yoga Provides Relief for PTSD Sufferers

14 November 2013

The number of military and veteran suicides is rising, and experts fear it will continue to increase despite aggressive suicide prevention campaigns by the government and private organizations. Some 8,000 veterans are thought to die by suicide each year, a toll of about 22 per day, according to a 2012 VA study. The VA acknowledged the numbers might be significantly underestimated because they’re based on incomplete data from 21 states, not including Texas or California. Even so, the data documents an increase of nearly 11 percent between 2007 and 2010, the most recent year of data in the study.

Military enlistees and veterans consider suicide as an alternative to coping with pent-up rage and fear. This shows how much the establishment casts the mental health needs of returning veterans by the wayside.

Not only combat veterans suffer from stress disorders, they are now beginning to become more common among civilians working in today’s increasingly stressful environments. To alleviate symptoms of combat and operational stress reactions (COSR), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) plus increase the resilience of critical task workers that are exposed to high stress environments (this includes affected caregivers and family members), evidence-based yoga and mindfulness practices have been shown to be effective.

What most people fail to realize is that trauma is not necessarily the story of something terrible that happened in the past, but the residue of imprints left behind in people’s sensory and hormonal systems. Traumatized people are often terrified of the sensations felt in their own bodies.

People with PTSD and other stress disorders easily lose their way in the world. Their bodies often continue to live in an internal environment of the traumas they were exposed to. We are all biologically and neurologically programmed to deal with critical situations, but time seems to stop in people who suffer from PTSD. That makes it hard to find pleasure (or peace) in the present moment because the body keeps replaying what happened in the past. If you practice Yoga and can develop a body that is strong and feels comfortable, this will contribute substantially to help you return to the “here and now” rather than remaining stranded in the past.

Yoga is an Asian tradition that clearly helps to reintegrate the body and mind. For someone to heal from PTSD, they need to learn how to control bodily/mind reflexes. PTSD causes memories to be stored at a sensory level (in the body), and the stored, unresolved PTSD symptoms include hypertension, cardiovascular disease and even immune disorders. Yoga offers a way to reprogram automatic physical responses. Practicing mindfulness in order to become consciously aware of the ebb and flow of internal experiences, and paying particular attention to whatever thoughts, feelings, body sensations and impulses emerge are important aspects in healing PTSD.

Yoga greatly assists in regulating both our emotional and physiological states. It empowers the body to regain its natural movement and balance and it teaches the use of breath (pranayama) for self-regulation.

What is so attractive about Yoga is that it instructs us (and this is a critical point for those who feel trapped in their memory sensations), that all things do come to an end. While doing certain asanas, uncomfortable sensations may be evoked. But, by keeping track of them while staying in a posture for a limited amount of time, students and practitioners get to observe that the discomfort can be tolerated, at least until they shift into a different posture. The process of being in a safe space and staying with whatever sensations emerge, and seeing how they come to an end, is a positive imprinting process for the mind/body. Yoga helps those affected to befriend their body; the same body that had previously betrayed them.

Another important aspect of Yoga is the proper use of the breath. Normally in western culture we’re taught that we can’t learn to master our own physiology; solutions always come from outside, starting with relationships, and if those fail, alcohol or drugs. But Yoga teaches us that there are things we can do to change our brain’s arousal system, our sympathetic and our parasympathetic nervous systems and subsequently quiet the brain.

Meditation: is it recommended for those with PTSD?

In the west meditation has now almost become mainstream. The neurobiology of meditation, which indicates that the brain can grow new cells and actually reshape itself, is becoming more and more acknowledged and to the degree that it’s finding its way into mental health services. If we meditate regularly, this can restrain the fear center which helps us become more focused. Ironically though, if you are traumatized, remaining in silence, even for a short period of time is often terrifying. Memories of traumas are stored, so when you are quiet and still, these demons come out. Those with PTSD should first learn to regulate their physiology with asana, pranayama and relaxation and work slowly toward meditation practice.

Of related interest, click on: Ten-hut – Yoga & the Military

*Rae Indigo is ERYT500.

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