For decades, many yoga teachers and practitioners have had a hunch that mindfulness can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. And now, more and more, scientific studies are emerging that back that intuition. A recent research review published in the February Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, co-authored by University of Hawai’i at Mānoa professor Kathryn Braun and Army physician assistant Robin Cushing, attests to the positive benefits that mind-body practices can offer veterans who experience combat-related post traumatic stress.
The American Psychological Association defines PTSD as “an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events, such as combat, crime, an accident, or natural disaster.” The symptoms of PTSD can include flashbacks, nightmares, and avoidance (of places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic event).
The abstract of the research review, titled “Mind-Body Therapy for Military Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Systematic Review,” states that close to one-third of service members returning from deployment in the years after 9/11 express symptoms of mental health conditions. “Mind-body therapies have been offered as alternative approaches to decreasing post-traumatic stress disorder,” it elaborates, “but no review of studies with veterans of post-9/11 operations was found.”
To fill this lack, the researchers collected reports of studies of veterans who received mind-body intervention (e.g., mindfulness, mind-body therapy, and yoga). Out of the 175 studies they compiled, 15 met the requirements for their review: Participants had to have been diagnosed with PTSD or a subthreshold of it, at least some participants had to have served after 9/11, and the PTSD had to be combat-specific rather than a result of another traumatic event.
The specific practices these studies reported on included seated or gentle yoga combined with meditation, mantra repetition, and breathing exercises. After reviewing the 15 studies, they found that there was a “significant” reduction in PTSD symptoms for all veterans involved. They concluded: “Although findings were positive, future studies are needed to evaluate the short- and long-term impact of mind-body therapies on larger samples of post-9/11 veterans and to address research questions related to broadening service member and veteran participation in these therapies.”
Understanding PTSD: How Far We’ve Come
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been interpreted in different ways over time. During the early 19th century, the symptoms of PTSD were thought to be caused by microscopic lesions of the spine or brain. During the American Civil War, “war-related anxieties” such as “constricted breath and palpitations” were referred to as “irritable heart” or “soldier’s heart.” According to Smithsonian Magazine, soldier’s heart was thought to be the result of either “character flaws or underlying physical problems,” and these particular physical symptoms “were blamed on exertion or knapsack straps drawn too tightly across soldiers’ chests.”
Thanks to advancements in psychology, we now know that war-related anxiety has nothing to do with tight equipment or anything inherent to one’s physicality or character. And thanks to staggering Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) statistics, which reveal that on average in 2014, 20 veterans were committing suicide every day, we’re also becoming more aware of the damaging effects combat-related trauma can have on the individual psyche.
The VA devotes a portion of their website to raising PTSD awareness and they provide a powerful disclaimer: “PTSD can happen to anyone. It is not a sign of weakness.”
As awareness grows, networks of support for veterans who have experienced traumatic events are emerging, including in the yoga world.
How Yoga Can Help
Why are mind-body practices so effective? PTSD and its corresponding symptoms are associated with an overactive sympathetic nervous system: the “fight or flight” aspect of the nervous system which can lead to a state of “arousal, selective attention, and vigilance.” Molly Birkholm, the co-founder of Warriors at Ease, an organization whose mission is to “bring the healing power of yoga and meditation to military communities around the world, especially those affected by combat stress, trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder,” credits the effects of mind-body practices to their ability to activate the opposite effect.
“Mind-body practices like trauma-sensitive yoga and iRest Yoga Nidra [a trauma-sensitive guided meditation], give [veterans] a proactive way to evoke the relaxation response, which shift[s] [them] from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system,” Birkholm explains. “During the past decade as the co-founder of Warriors at Ease, I’ve worked with more than ten thousand service members, veterans, and military families. When you hear a veteran who has not slept more than two consecutive hours a night since the war tell you that they are now sleeping six to eight hours a night, you see the profound change [mind-body practices] can have on someone’s life.” She continues: “These tools help veterans not just find relief from PTSD, but also support them in discovering post-traumatic growth, the strength and wisdom we find through challenging life experiences.”
Nicholas Carias, a veteran and Warriors at Ease teacher, shares his own experience: “[Yoga] is so much more than just moving your body on a mat . . . it's about reconnecting with yourself. This is why I became a teacher, to help show the deeper meaning of yoga and to help my fellow veterans. I don’t want any of them to suffer the way I did. I want to reach them before the act of suffering becomes their reality, to give them the tools to overcome that adversity. It's important to realize as well that these traumatic experiences will never leave us, we will always think of them and hold on to those memories. However, you can take away [the] power and control those emotional reactions [have]. The act of controlling your breath alone accomplishes this. This is why I practice yoga, this is why I teach yoga, and it's how I deal with my post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and physical pain. Yoga saved my life and it will forever be a part of my life.”
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the potential of yoga and its related practices to alleviate the symptoms of trauma is undeniable and significant. If you’re looking to get involved, here is a list of organizations to support: