This blog post is published courtesy of Mindful Yoga Therapy.
For many of us, the practices of yoga have changed our lives. This statement may seem dramatic, but it's true. These practices teach us to turn inward, to pay attention, and to notice without judgment. They enable us to find balance in our bodies and minds and develop our overall well-being. Because of these benefits, yoga is an invaluable asset for men and women who are living with trauma-related psychological difficulties.
Yoga practices are a powerful complement to professional treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress. A mindful, embodied yoga practice provides relief from symptoms and develops the supportive skills that is needed in their everyday lives. Yoga does not cure Post-Traumatic Stress, but it has proven to aid in a healing journey.
To explain why yoga helps those with PTSD, we must understand the symptoms and some information about yoga itself.
Post-Traumatic Stress is a natural reaction to an unnatural occurrence.
Traumas are experiences “outside the range of usual human experience,” such as combat, catastrophic accident, natural disaster, or sexual assault that result in overwhelming feelings of fear, helplessness, or horror. Traumas may result from direct or indirect experience with life-threatening events, serious injury, or sexual violence (e.g., combat or rape.) Most people who experience trauma do not develop PTSD, and those who do may experience symptoms immediately, months, or years after the event.
We know that trauma can shatter a person’s sense of personal safety and make it very difficult to trust others. So they may avoid doing things or going places in which they are not in control of their surroundings. Sometimes, they experience a fear of being overwhelmed by unwanted thoughts and feelings, or of losing control of their bodies.
The four PTSD symptom “clusters” (groupings of symptoms) are Arousal, Intrusion, Avoidance, and Negative Cognitions and Moods.
Let’s take a look at each cluster individually.
Arousal symptoms are survival reactions that helped keep you alive in extraordinary situations. During trauma, survival reactions take over. These reactions are activated automatically through the sympathetic nervous system, also known as fight or flight. When activated by the amygdala, the brain’s “emergency dispatcher,” the sympathetic nervous system instantly responds with a cascade of physiological changes affecting many parts of the body. The sole purpose of these changes is to maximize your chances for survival. We all know what fight or flight feels like, but we may not be aware of all that is happening within us.
Physiological Reactions during Fight or Flight Response:
• Respiration and heart rate increase. • Our pupils dilate to take in more light and visual information. • Arteries dilate and veins constrict to increase circulatory efficiency. • The body releases glucose as a quick energy source. • Blood, oxygen, and sugar are rushed to the large muscle groups. • Non-critical functions (digestion, blood flow to extremities) are slowed or halted.
• Natural opiates are released, and capillaries are constricted in case of injury. • Feelings vary, but we typically experience anger, fear, or a sense of exhilaration.
These and other physical and mental changes happen automatically and with incredible efficiency, again, to keep us alive. In the case of chronic PTSD, however, one’s sympathetic nervous system is overactive! People with PTS are therefore prone to “false alarms,” or over-responding based on misconceptions of a threat. One of our students described it as “being constantly on guard and never on stand down.”
Some implications of a sympathetic nervous system that is overactive over time include: feeling irritable or on edge, being easily angered, and getting poor sleep. They also find it harder to concentrate, and their memory and ability to learn new things may be affected. Physical problems associated with an overactive sympathetic nervous system include hypertension, tension headaches, muscular pain, gastrointestinal complaints (acid reflux, stomach upset, and diarrhea), stress-related weight gain, and an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes.
INTRUSION Intrusive symptoms occur when they experience intrusive thoughts about the traumas, flashbacks, and nightmares. The daily stresses and overactive sympathetic nervous system associated with arousal increase the likelihood that a veteran with PTSD will experience intrusive symptoms. People with PTSD may notice that when they are stressed out, on guard, or angry about something, they are more likely to have intrusive thoughts or flashbacks. Intrusive thoughts may also affect sleep with frequent or severe nightmares.
The intrusions, in turn, increase arousal, resulting in a “feedback loop,” or what is sometimes called the Cycle of Stress: The Cycle of Stress
Avoidance symptoms include persistent avoidance of thoughts, feelings, situations, memories, or reminders of past traumas. Shutting down feelings at the time of a trauma made sense. They could not afford to feel; reaction and survival took first priority. Now, however, emotional numbing creates problems. While it may be familiar and comfortable, numbing prevents them from connecting with other people and living life more fully. They may also use substances to numb feelings and try to forget their experience. Many trauma survivors keep busy or work long hours to avoid being still and having painful thoughts, images, or feelings associated with the traumas. They may also dissociate, “check out” mentally, or feel disconnected from their bodies when under stress.
NEGATIVE COGNITIONS AND MOODS
Negative cognitions and moods include alterations in their thoughts and disposition, such as negative beliefs about oneself and others, the tendency to harshly assign blame internally and externally, persistent feelings of guilt, shame, anger, or fear, difficulty expressing positive emotions like love and gratitude, and a sense of detachment from others.
Mindful Yoga Therapy is an empirically informed, clinically tested program comprised of five practices: Pranayama (breathing), Asana (postures connected with breath), Yoga Nidra, Meditation, and Gratitude. Each practice is a tool that can use to manage the systems of PTSD, and together, they form a comprehensive system, a toolbox, that will carry them into a life of strength and resilience.
The healing effects of yogic practices have begun to receive validation from modern science. Researchers have started to discover the pathways by which pranayama, asana, and meditation support healing. These yoga practices do not cure Post Traumatic Stress but are profoundly helpful in managing the symptoms and creating a better life. Fortunately, yoga can often be a valuable and effective complementary therapy to professional treatment for PTSD.
A mindful, embodied yoga practice brings trauma survivors back into their bodies. It helps them sleep more soundly. It helps them transform anger. It helps them rediscover curiosity. It helps them experience love and happiness. It gives them the opportunity to live at their own pace and find their own truth.
People contending with the symptoms of PTSD can use yoga as a method to regain control over a nervous system that is always “on alert,” as well as self-destructive behaviors and habits. Since trauma lies in the body, mind, and spirit, a holistic, integrated yoga practice can help these men and women reconnect with themselves as they are in the present moment, find comfort in their own skin, and grow ever more aligned with their chosen values and goals.
Clinical trials have demonstrated that even the best yoga teachers need to acquire a specific set of skills and considerations in order to work in trauma recovery programs. To that end, Mindful Yoga Therapy has been training yoga teachers for 10 years with the goal of creating the most qualified and supportive teaching staff possible.
About the Author: Suzanne Manafort | Owner & Founder of Mindful Yoga Therapy
Suzanne has studied extensively with Beryl Bender Birch at The Hard and The Soft Yoga Institute and also with Patty Townsend in the Embodyoga Teacher Training programs at Yoga Center Amherst. She is now on faculty at both schools where she teaches in both teacher training programs, and is the Director at Mindful Yoga Center and it’s teacher training’s.
Suzanne will be leading the 15 hour Yoga Nidra Training at Wainwright February 29-March 1, 2020
You can register here