POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER AND YOGA
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a widely prevalent anxiety disorder characterized by mentally and physically invasive symptoms that can severely disrupt someone’s life. During WWI it was known as shell shock. After WWII it was renamed combat stress reaction. Vietnam veterans became best known for their flashbacks of combat, a terrifyingly common symptom for many diagnosed with this disorder. However, PTSD doesn’t just affect veterans of war. Anyone who has experienced a traumatic event can develop PTSD, including victims of abuse, witnesses of accidents or violent crimes, or individuals who have lost loved ones or who have had a brush with death. Any traumatizing event can trigger a response. Trauma is cumulative. Just like a repeated physical injury results in dysfunction and compensation, so do the emotional ones. Physical trauma, too, can lead to PTSD, and I am talking beyond physical brain trauma. Why? Because you can’t separate the body from the mind. We store our emotional trauma physically, and our physical trauma emotionally. Trauma (emotional or physical) gets woven into every cell and muscle fibre of our bodies. Repeated trauma without treatment reinforces the pattern of compensation until the proverbial levee breaks, and there is nowhere left for it to go. This eventually leads to a full system breakdown, otherwise known as a nervous breakdown, when the body and mind can no longer tolerate the strain. This is the place where suicide and homicide live: a terribly dark and horrifying world of desperation and last resort. Many turn to drugs and alcohol as way of trying to cope with their pain. Frustrated with their situation or too afraid to ask for help, they turn to substance, which creates more trauma, perpetuating the cycle of worsening symptoms and more frequent anxiety. PTSD Yoga Therapy for Sufferers Trauma triggers the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to fire. Designed as a self-preservation system intended only for emergencies, in people with PTSD (and those with concurrent substance use or addiction issues) this system gets stuck. As trauma is relived (as flashbacks, nightmares or at random intervals), or through continuous traumatization on a regular basis, the SNS doesn’t get the break it should. Prolonged firing of the SNS of this kind drains the adrenal glands of their life-preserving juices (adrenaline), leading to what is known as adrenal fatigue. The symptoms of adrenal fatigue are debilitating: extreme fatigue, low immunity, body aches, hair loss, etc., create a complex pattern of illness for the sufferer. Not only is the person suffering from the mental and emotional components of their trauma, but a physiological one as well.
It sounds bleak doesn’t it? There’s hope. Yoga has been shown to be of tremendous benefit. To those that practise regularly, this will be of no surprise. Yoga teaches integration, acceptance and breath-work. It allows the physical body to unwind, align and be at ease. It asks the mind to let go, to be present in each moment. Its benefits have been researched and proven to help treat chronic pain, anxiety, depression, headaches, digestive and sleep problems, and more. It is a physical practice that supports emotional wellbeing as much as it is an emotional practice that supports physical wellbeing. From the TCM view, when the body and mind are diseased, the amount of abundant healthy energy circulating throughout its various connections (meridians) also becomes diseased and disorganized. As trauma shuts down one area of the body, its neurobiological connection to the brain can also become less active, sending the message to the rest of the body that it’s cutting its losses to survive. Acupuncture is also well suited to treating PTSD. Acupuncture gently helps shift the body out of sympathetic firing into parasympathetic firing, making its use in the treatment of trauma and PTSD indispensable. Together yoga and acupuncture help the body to return to homeostatic balance effectively by engaging all aspects of the mind-body in a non-invasive supportive way that is patient-centred. I often suggest a number of simple and gentle postures that are doable for yoga newcomers, coupled with a few equally easy-to-use acupoints when one is feeling particularly overwhelmed:
- Balasana (child’s pose): A posture of surrender and rest. It is also deeply relaxing, and serves additionally to help lengthen the back (the low back in particular).
- Yin-tang: This is an acupoint located at the centre of the forehead. Used to help calm the mind, strengthen one’s intuition, and treat headaches and sore eyes, it is a profoundly relaxing point. This point can be pressed by the hands, or against the floor while the head rests in balasana.
- Shan Zhong (Ren 17): This point is located at the centre of the chest on the sternum (breast bone) on a line drawn between the two nipples. It is used to facilitate the movement of qi in the body (meeting point of qi). It helps guide chest qi downward (for breathing) and is also classified as the front mu (alarm) point of the pericardium. This is an area of tension frequently experienced during anxiety attacks. I often place emphasis on this point when doing sun salutations, when the hands come to rest in prayer at the centre of the chest. At this stage in the salutation sequence, I ask people to pause and take a deep breath into the heart, while pressing their thumbs into the point.
The important piece to take away from this is that there are treatment options available for PTSD. It is a multifaceted illness that requires a multifaceted approach. Employing the skills of a well trained therapist and participating in group therapy are always good ideas.
Be well. Namaste.