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How can yoga help with PTSD?

Yoga is widely known for its effectiveness on reducing anxiety and stress, both of which can be exacerbated by those living with PTSD. Yoga can assist in correcting under activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the gamma-amino-butyric acid (GABA) system through stimulation of the vagus nerves and the reduction of stress-induced allostatic load (1).

Through mindfulness techniques, Yoga can help individuals focus on positive thoughts, with an emphasis on the present moment, rather than disturbing or worrying thoughts from the past. Practices include breathing and physical exercises, movement, muscle relaxation and meditation which may help to reduce anxiety and counteract negative thoughts and feelings. (2) These methods are used to promote good physical and mental health, while frequently providing a safe environment where thoughts and emotions can be processed without fear of recrimination or stigmatization.

There is growing support for the use of yoga in the treatment of PTSD; supported by evidence that yoga can help to decrease a variety of PTSD symptoms.

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  • In a randomized controlled trial in the US, a group of 38 women suffering with PTSD were assigned a twelve-session yoga intervention, after which they displayed significantly fewer symptoms of PTSD, in particular, re-experiencing and hyperarousal.
  • A further study of 21 male war veterans who were assigned breathing-based yoga practices also displayed fewer signs of PTSD than a wait-list control group.
  • In a non-random study, 183 survivors of a tsunami were assigned yoga-based breathing techniques and breathing techniques plus exposure treatment. These two groups experienced greater improvements in PTSD, depression, and quality of life than the wait-list control group (3).

Where has yoga been applied to treat PTSD?

In California, the Veterans Yoga Project is a non-profit organization offering yoga to war veterans in an attempt to reduce symptoms of PTSD. It offers over 100 free classes for veterans and their families each week alongside multi-day retreats where they are given the time and space to focus on mindfulness, practice yoga and let go of traumatic memories. The mindful resilience classes focus on five tools: breath, meditation, mindful movement, guided rest and gratitude. The organization states that of 58 veterans who attended 200 yoga classes in 2015, 79% of them reported a decrease in stress. Their ultimate aim is to reduce the number of veteran suicides caused by trauma and to support them through all stages of recovery.

What it is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder characterised by symptoms of hyperarousal and avoidance after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It’s probably fair to say that most people commonly link PTSD with war, but it is also prevalent in those who have been involved in a variety of situations, including crime, natural disasters or accidents. While the severity of symptoms can vary, for many it can have a profound and devastating impact on their lives, and for those close to them.

Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD is a mental health condition that manifests in a number of ways. Symptoms can develop at any time following a traumatic event, but most often in the first month.

Symptoms include:

Flashbacks and nightmares – the re-experiencing of events through vivid and distressing mental images. Involuntary reliving of the event can lead to physical side effects such as sweating, trembling and nausea.

Hyperarousal – anxiety linked to PTSD results in the inability to relax and emerges in the form of insomnia, irritability, anger and lack of concentration. Those suffering may be easily startled and frequently appear on-edge.

Avoidance – a typical sign of PTSD is the avoidance of people or places which may trigger flashbacks or memories for those affected. Talking about topics linked to the event are circumvented and some may attempt to completely eradicate the memory from their mind.

Negative beliefs – unable to trust anyone and feeling nowhere is safe. This is linked to feelings of guilt, shame, anger and sadness.

Who is affected by PTSD?

It’s important to note that PTSD can affect anyone, however it is most commonly experienced by the following people:

  • War veterans – ex-military who have experienced life-changing injuries and witnessed deaths of colleagues, friends and civilians.
  • Crime victims – people who have been affected by violent crimes including physical attacks, rape, terrorism, and robbery.
  • Those involved in serious accidents which may have resulted in the death of those close to them and left them fearing for their lives.
  • Victims of natural disasters – the victims of storms, hurricanes, tornados and tsunamis not only experience the devastating consequences of losing their possessions but are also left with painful memories of injury and death.
  • Mothers – traumatic childbirth has been shown to have caused PTSD in thousands of mothers worldwide.
  • Firefighters – high rates of PTSD have been found in firefighters who are often exposed to multiple traumatic events.  Firefighters are dealing with death and injuries not always through natural causes and are frequently exposed to distressing scenes.

About the author: This post was written by The Minded Institute, a world leader in the development and implementation of yoga therapy for those suffering with ptsd, and for people with mental health and chronic physical health problems.

Photo by Jennifer Regnier on Unsplash

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