How yoga can help ease PTSD symptoms
Typically consisting of ‘pranayama’ (breathing exercises), ‘asanas’ (stretching and posture work), and meditation, yoga teaches individuals how to befriend their bodies, and therefore be better equipped to navigate the complexities of trauma and its physiological effects.
This article will answer why and how yoga can help minimise the symptoms of PTSD, what specific symptoms yoga can help with, and the particular yoga practices that have been noted as making positive intervention in the process of recovery from PTSD.
In The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma (Penguin Books: 2014), Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk writes: ‘We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.’. For victims of PTSD to truly relearn how to inhabit their bodies, Van Der Kolk emphasises the importance of becoming familiar with bodily sensations: ‘For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present.’.
Those with PTSD are likely to experience alexithymia, a technical term for not being able to identify what is going on in their body. Yoga is a vital practice that can help those with PTSD reconnect their mind and brain to their body, and regain a sense of themselves in the world.
WHY DOES YOGA HELP?
As Van Der Kolk writes, those with PTSD find it challenging to control emotions and impulses, as the relationship between the regulating systems of the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex is typically off-balance in a traumatised body. Van Der Kolk identifies two ways of navigating this imbalance – either through top-down or bottom-up regulation. Top-down regulation involves strengthening the capacity of the medial prefrontal cortex to monitor bodily sensations. Yoga and meditative practice can help with this, equipping individuals with a better capacity to self-regulate and gain control of their own bodies.
Breathing practices help to centre individuals in their own body – even steps as simple as noticing the speed, duration, and placement of breath can be a significant achievement in improving your relationship with your body.
When practising different postures, it’s helpful to take time to notice which muscles are activated in the stretch – this will, in turn, reconnect you to your body. As Van Der Kolk writes: ‘Simply noticing what you feel fosters emotional regulation, and it helps you to stop trying to ignore what is going on inside you.’
WHAT SYMPTOMS CAN YOGA EASE?
Regular yoga has been shown to reduce physiological arousal in those with PTSD, helping the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to adapt better to triggers and stimuli. In other words, yoga helps minimise the risk of the body experiencing intrusive memories and other physical symptoms of PTSD. This can, in turn, reduce emotional arousal and consequent distress.
Regular mindfulness and meditation can also make positive changes to neural functioning – for example, helping the learning and memory processes, emotional regulation, and perspective-taking – as well as reducing the size of the amygdala.
Regular yoga – in particular hatha yoga – stabilises heart rates and reduces blood pressure, as well as improving hormonal activity.
Yoga is equally great for easing tense muscles and improving the confidence of those with PTSD to go about daily life, secure in the knowledge that they are less likely to experience triggering episodes.
THE BENEFITS OF SPECIFIC YOGA PRACTICE
Hatha yoga is particularly effective at helping with heart rate variation (HRV), a measurement of the balance between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. Having a balanced HRV is vital to emotional self-regulation: it equips us with the ability to calm ourselves down. Typically, those with PTSD have low HRV; hatha yoga is noted for helping to stabilise HRV, as well as helping to reduce intrusive thoughts and anxiety, and is therefore a particularly beneficial yoga practice.
Kundalini yoga has also been found to be effective in minimising the symptoms of PTSD – in particular, perceived stress and anxiety, resilience, and sleep.
There are a number of studies in which yoga has been proven to help those with PTSD: Van Der Kolk cites a study conducted by colleagues where, after twenty weeks of regular practice, six women had significantly increased activation in the brain structures that are vital for self-regulation. Equally, an alternative study has demonstrated significant reductions in PTSD symptom severity experienced by military veterans as a result of regular yoga.
It is generally agreed that more research is needed into the link between yoga and the reduction of PTSD symptoms. Nonetheless, yoga is an effective practice by which to make a tangible, non-medical intervention, and has been proven to have significant positive effects on PTSD symptoms, as reconnecting the mind and brain with the body is a vital way of navigating trauma.
It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.
- Gallegos, A. M., Crean, H. F., Pigeon, W. R., & Heffner, K. L. (2017). Meditation and yoga for posttraumatic stress disorder: A meta-analytic review of randomized controlled trials. Clinical psychology review, 58, 115–124. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2017.10.004
- Kim SH, Schneider SM, Kravitz L, Mermier C, Burge MR. Mind-body practices for posttraumatic stress disorder. J Investig Med. 2013 Jun;61(5):827-34. doi: 10.2310/JIM.0b013e3182906862. PMID: 23609463; PMCID: PMC3668544.
- Streeter CC, Gerbarg PL, Saper RB, Ciraulo DA, Brown RP. Effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Med Hypotheses. 2012 May;78(5):571-9. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2012.01.021. Epub 2012 Feb 24. PMID: 22365651.
- Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research, 191(1), 36–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
- Matthew Tyler Boden, Amit Bernstein, Robyn D. Walser, Leena Bui, Jennifer Alvarez, Marcel O. Bonn-Miller, Changes in facets of mindfulness and posttraumatic stress disorder treatment outcome, Psychiatry Research, Volume 200, Issues 2–3, 2012, Pages 609-613, ISSN 0165-1781, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2012.07.011.
- Seppälä EM, Nitschke JB, Tudorascu DL, Hayes A, Goldstein MR, Nguyen DT, Perlman D, Davidson RJ. Breathing-based meditation decreases posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in U.S. military veterans: a randomized controlled longitudinal study. J Trauma Stress. 2014 Aug;27(4):397-405. doi: 10.1002/jts.21936. PMID: 25158633; PMCID: PMC4309518.
- Jindani, F., Turner, N., & Khalsa, S. B. (2015). A Yoga Intervention for Posttraumatic Stress: A Preliminary Randomized Control Trial. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2015, 351746. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/351746
- The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma (Penguin Books: 2014), Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.