Yoga as therapy of post traumatic stress disorder PTSD
What is trauma?
Traumatic life events take many forms. It can be a physical or sexual assault, a car accident, exposure to violence, the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship. Experiencing abuse, neglect or domestic violence as a child can also lead to ongoing traumatic stress. Trauma can also result from ongoing societal barriers that many people face, such as the stress of racism, discrimination, oppression…
Whatever the source of the trauma, the person who experiences it does not have the resources to deal with the situation at the time it occurs. It interferes with their ability to feel alive in body and mind, and it disrupts their very sense of existence.
If left untreated, distress can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When the trauma is the result of chronic, repeated, and ongoing traumatic events, it is called Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD), which results in even more severe physical and psychological damages.
Symptoms of trauma
Traumatic experiences affect the mind and body of those who experience them. Complex trauma affects all aspects of a child/adolescent’s development: cognitive, emotional, and physical. Here is a non-exhaustive list of symptoms.
- Physical Symptoms
Unresolved trauma can have a significant impact on physical health.
During any stressful event, the body produces cortisol, a chemical associated with the sympathetic nervous system and the fight or flight response. When stress is ongoing, the body continues to produce large amounts of cortisol.
Health problems associated with chronic stress, in which cortisols are elevated and immunity is suppressed, include – High Blood Pressure, Blood Sugar Imbalance, Emotional Eating, Alcohol, Caffeine, Nicotine or Other Drug Use, Slow Digestion, Suppressed Immunity…
- Emotional Symptoms
Anxiety, flashbacks, hypervigilance or nightmares are among the most common disturbances. Hypervigilance is being on guard or being very sensitive to your environment in order to protect yourself.
Emotional dysregulation, the overwhelming emotions of sadness, anger or fear. These emotions can feel overwhelming or even distracting from your relationship with yourself, and others.
Shame and self-deprecation are also common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder depression.
In order to escape the memories of trauma, it is common to develop avoidance strategies (situations, people, and places that remind oneself of the past). Avoidance is also maintained by defenses such as denial of the past, repression of feelings, minimization of pain or dissociation.
- Dissociation as a survival mechanism
Dissociation is an avoidance mechanism used to create distance from painful emotions and sensations. When we are confronted with a danger or permanent injury, we learn to disconnect from ourselves in order to tolerate physical or emotional pain of the memory of the traumatic event.
However, when we are disconnected from our bodies and ourselves, we are not able to recognize the danger signs, which can lead to further threat or injury. We are not able to recognize the signs of stress and therefore cannot compensate by taking better care of ourselves or by resolving the underlying issues that caused the stress.
The body keeps memory of trauma
Emotional pain related to trauma is stored in the body long after a traumatic event has ended. As described by Bessel Van der Kolk, the body keeps the score.
The storage of traumatic memories is evolutionarily adaptive. We need to remember dangerous or threatening situations in order to try to avoid them in the future. But holding these memories in our bodies, in the physical and emotional sense, can create a lot of discomfort and distress.
Like Jon Kabat Zinn’s MBSR (mindfulness based for stress reduction), trauma informed yoga was born in the United States. Therapists, psychologists, and yogis in contact with highly traumatized people (war veterans, victims of physical abuse and psychological neglect) have noted the limitations of verbal therapies in healing symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
Trauma informed yoga is a set of practices like :
- gentle yoga with an inviting language without any connotation of constraint
- relaxation techniques for the nervous system
- visualization of a safe place
- somatic practices like guided free movement
- guided meditation
The practice of trauma-informed yoga in combination with psychological support can help to:
- develop the ability to remain present by tolerating the inner experience,
- reconnect with one’s body by getting back in touch with one’s physical sensations
- activate the para-sympathetic nervous system responsible for physical relaxation
- sensing and trusting one’s sensations and emotions
- regulate ones emotions and be less afraid of them
- find the desire to take care of oneself and learning tools to be able to do so
This practice then has a ripple effect on emotional and mental health, on relationships and on the experience of life in the world.
Yoga or the experience of wholeness
Yoga offers the opportunity to experience wholeness. Wholeness is being aware of and in touch with yourself throughout your body, living in your body. When we inhabit our body, we experience ourselves as consciousness, which permeates our whole body and our environment, at the same time.
Trauma fragments and limits our wholeness. Trauma separates us from our bodies, disrupts the unity of body and mind and the unity of self and others.
When we embody our wholeness, our thoughts, emotions, sensations and perceptions form a unity. Our senses function as a unit. Our actions flow from a single source of understanding, emotion and physical sensation
Being in touch with our body is at the same time being open to our environment. Wherever we are in contact with ourselves in our bodies, we are alive and sensitive to the world around us. This produces a lived experience of continuity and connection with everything and everyone we encounter.
Schwartz, Arielle. The Complex PTSD Workbook:
Schwartz, Arielle. The Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook
Emerson, David; Hopper, Elizabeth. Overcoming Trauma through
Blackstone, Judith. Trauma and the Unbound Body
Mary NurrieStearns & Rick NurrieStearns. Yoga for emotional trauma