Yoga and PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), most often used to describe a condition triggered by combat trauma in returning veterans also includes survivors of rape, kidnapping, child abuse, spouse abuse, natural disasters, accidents, concentration camp experiences, incest, and burns. Current wars, protests, and catastrophes continue to generate more PTSD. Many of us have such past experiences in need of our full attention to move beyond the trauma.

Nightmares are often exact replicas of the traumatic event. People with PTSD sometimes move from stimulus to response without realizing what makes them so upset. They either overreact and threaten others or shut down and freeze.

We live in times of perpetual trauma generated by fires out of control, wars over water and energy, earthquakes, hurricanes, unemployment, disease, drug abuse, and so much more. Depending on the severity of the stressor, genetic predisposition, a person’s social support system, prior traumatic events, pre-existing personality and other variables, long-term adjustment to such trauma varies.

Bessel van der Kolk, a Boston University  psychiatrist, did research to discover how trauma affects the brain. He was interested in discovering a way for people with PTSD to still the cacophony of the mind that is continually reacting to ongoing stimuli.

He found that Yoga could get people to safely feel their physical sensations and develop a quiet practice of stillness. Yoga invites people to move through many postures that are named after the animals, birds, and people they represent. Students are instructed to, as an example, be the cobra, arching the neck, extending the tongue, raising the feet, while giving full attention to being the cobra.

Victims of violence have routinely been trapped, pinned down or unable to move.

Some postures, such as the backward bending camel or the child may trigger traumatic memories. Rather than avoiding such postures, students are advised to include them in their routine and observe that discomfort can be tolerated until they move into the next posture. Gradually, as one is able to hold the posture with full attention for longer periods, the memory is replaced by the ability to safely feel physical sensations and develop a practice of quiet stillness.

Because silence is often terrifying for people with PTSD, beginning emphasis is on first developing and regulating breathing practices, postures and relaxation before attempting meditation. If meditation is attempted too soon, it can become a terrifying rumination.

For more information on treatment of PTSD with Yoga, van der Kolk recommends David Emerson at demerson@traumacenter.org.

Practices such as Tai chi and martial arts serve a similar purpose: to develop the ability to attend closely to the present moment. These ancient practices we are rediscovering today may well lead us to the balance we need to navigate around today’s world.

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