Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a nasty business. Anyone can experience PTSD, however the most likely victims to fall foul of this psychiatric disorder are: firefighters, rape victims, prisoners of war, war veterans, witnesses of natural disaster, and car crash survivors. Normally a trauma survivor’s stress reaction will recover in time. However for some, their stress response grows stronger over time, developing PTSD.
In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, one must have been exposed to one or more traumatic events that may include direct exposure, witnessing in person, indirect exposure, or repeated extreme indirect exposure to death, actual or threatened serious injury or actual or threatened sexual violence. The symptoms of PTSD are clustered into four categories: (1) intrusion symptoms (2) avoidance symptoms (3) negative alterations in cognition and mood and (4) alterations in arousal and reactivity.
PTSD’s Chronic Threat State
Doctors describe Chronic Threat as a state where emotional and cognitive processes are disrupted and social engagement behaviours go unregulated. Those affected by PTSD begin to process environmental stimuli differently to those no affected by PTSD, reducing the capacity to distinguish between threat and non-threat in their environment.
There are a variety of differing PTSD symptoms, ranging from the biological to the psychological. In addition, those experiencing PTSD can develop additional disorders, which aren’t necessarily a symptom of PTSD, but certainly seem to be an added bonus according to statistics.
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PTSD can start straight after a traumatic event, or up to 6 months later. However, PTSD is usually only diagnosed after a person has been under significant distress, and is displaying re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance and numbing symptoms and stress arousal symptoms for at least one month.
According to the PTSD Foundation of America 1 in 3 returning troops from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are affected by PTSD. 7.8% of all Americans will experience PTSD in their lifetime, with women being twice as likely as men to develop PTSD.
In the UK, The Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) latest statistics show a 12% increase in 2014 in the rate of mental disorders generally, with PTSD cases being a cause for concern. Referrals for those who have served in Iraq has risen by a fifth since combat operations ended in 2009, according to The Veteran’s Mental Health Charity, who have seen a 57% increase in former soldiers, sailors and airmen needing treatment post-Afghanistan. The MoD released a report in 2014 showing 396 serving personnel were diagnosed with PTSD in 2013, an increase of 19% from 2012.
Treating PTSD With Yoga
So where’s the silver lining in this very heavy cloud? There are a various treatment options for PTSD, including the use of antidepressants, eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, psychotherapy and most recently yoga. Whichever route to recovery a person chooses, it’s a hard slog ahead. Traumatic events need to be confronted and a certain amount of ‘coming to terms’ with the event(s) needs to happen. However, it seems that connecting the body and mind through yoga āsana practice is allowing PTSD sufferers to engage better with their traditional treatment plan, and is lowering their stress levels simultaneously.
Yes! A few initial studies have shown that the use of yoga āsana, meditation and breathing techniques is helping combat sleep deprivation, stress and anxiety management, and most recently PTSD. Although we’re still in the early stages, a growing body of research is suggesting yoga practice can combat PTSD in both the short and long term. The practise of yoga āsana serves as both a physical and behavioural health fitness routine, encouraging body awareness of the physical body and the mind, whilst increasing strength and flexibility.
How Does Yoga Therapy Work?
Various clinical studies testing the use of meditation, yoga and other stress-reduction techniques have been carried out since the 1970s. Early papers published by researchers working with Vietnam veterans saw positive results from alternative treatment methods, and these results have continued to grow. In 2009 Sudarshan Kriya Yoga was used to treat tsunami survivors; 2010 saw Latina women involved in a treatment study; and now we’re seeing a growing body of research showing that wounded soldiers and those suffering from PTSD are benefiting from practising yoga during recovery.
A 2014 study undertaken by the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, at Stanford University found breathing-based meditation decreased PTSD symptoms in US Military Veterans. Veterans who have served in the Afghanistan and Iraq war often return to the US suffering from pronounced PTSD symptoms, and contribute to a high suicide rate. Traditional treatments, such as medication and psychotherapy, don’t work for everyone, leading to military recovery programmes having a high drop out rate. Similarly, veterans often feel stigmatised when seeking mental health services.
For these reasons, it seems only natural that researchers are looking at alternative and complementary therapies to see what viable options are available. Hence the interest in yoga. Āsana practice has become ingrained in Western culture, with everyone from sports stars to toddlers practising yoga to tackle anxiety and keep stress at bay. These recent studies into yoga as treatment for PTSD are a huge win for the yoga community!