Reversing PTSD with Mindfulness

By Dorian Martin for Jennyoga

The term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been in the nation’s vernacular for a while, thanks to movies such as American Sniper, Saving Private Ryan, Born on the Fourth of July, Forest Gump, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home. While these films’ focus on the mental and emotional health of our military veterans is important, PTSD’s grasp actually extends far beyond those tested in war situations.

PTSD’s Prevalence in the U.S.

In fact, approximately 24.4 million Americans suffer from PTSD at any one time, according to PTSD United, Inc. That’s because 70 percent of all U.S. adults have experienced some form of traumatic event – such as rape, child abuse, spousal abuse, violent crime or natural disaster — at least once during their lifetime. Up to 20 percent of these adults will develop PTSD, which involves feeling greater stress or fright even when the person is no longer in danger. And contrary to what popular culture portrays, women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD; approximately one in nine women suffer from this condition.

PTSD and Yoga

While the main treatments include psychotherapy, medication or a combination of both, researchers are starting to find that a regular practice of yoga may benefit people with PTSD. For example, one small study in 2014 evaluated the effect of taking a 10-week trauma-informed yoga class on women who had chronic PTSD that wasn’t responding to treatment. The researchers’ analysis found that participating in this type of yoga statistically reduced PTSD symptoms. In fact, slightly more than half of the women in this study who were in the yoga group no longer met PTSD-diagnosis criteria by the study’s end.

Trauma-informed yoga, which is being pioneered at Houston’s Menninger Clinic, uses specific methods to create a safe environment in which participants make their own choices and, thus, regain control over their own bodies. For instance the teacher does not make hands-on adjustments without getting a participant’s permission since nonconsensual touch can trigger a PTSD episode. Yoga teachers also use specific words – “invited” instead of “instructed” and “form” instead of “pose” – that are more inclusive and less threatening. The classes also do not discuss the actual trauma that triggered the individual’s PTSD.

This approach also has implications for yoga classes that are not specifically tailored for PTSD patients. “When yoga teachers neglect to inform themselves about trauma phenomena they can inadvertently create signals that, to the student who has suffered a traumatic injury, are processed as danger,” Margaret Howard, a human trafficking policy advocate and mental health professional, wrote in a 2013 blog for The HuffingtonPost. “When that happens, the student can become ‘triggered’ — thrown into a physiological response to that perceived danger, because his or her body has been conditioned to respond that way by the traumatic event(s).”  Therefore, yoga instructors should be even more mindful of creating an inviting and safe environment for their students, some of whom may be quietly dealing with PTSD.

Primary Sources for This Blog:

Howard, M. (2013). Part I: Trauma Training Should Be Mandatory for Yoga Teachers. Huffington Post.

InspireMalibu.com. (ND). Here’s a List of 10 Films About PTSD.

Jones, J. (2015). ‘Trauma-Centered Yoga’ Helps Patients With PTSD and Chronic Pain. Houston Chronicle.

National Institute of Mental Health. (ND). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute. (ND). Yoga as a Complementary Treatment for Chronic PTSD.

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