Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that develops after a person has experienced very stressful or distressing events. Symptoms can include intense feelings of distress and extreme physical reactions when reminded of the trauma, nightmares, detachment, feeling emotionally numb etc.
In a normal person, stress levels usually return to normal after the stimulus is taken away. In people suffering from PTSD, however, the regulatory system that manages the stress hormones are malfunctioned. The smoke detector, the amygdala, is rewired by the trauma to interpret certain situations as life-threatening dangers. It sends signals to the survival brain to fight flee or freeze. Having all three happen the same time causes the person to mentally shut down, or trigger a panic attack.
There is a study recorded in the book “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bassel Van Der Kolk, where people who have experienced trauma had their Heart Rate Variability measured while in Savasana. Instead of picking up a clear signal, they ended up with too much muscle activity. Rather than going into relaxation, their muscles continue to “be on standby mode to fight unseen enemies”. It is shown how difficult it is for traumatised people to feel completely relaxed and physically safe in their bodies. Memory of helplessness is stored as muscle tension in the affected body areas. Many survivors cope by trying to “neutralise unwanted sensory experiences through self-numbing”.
Yoga, however, can help.
Learning to stay calm
People who have gone through trauma often find it difficult to stay calm. The body is constantly at a heightened state of anxiety and stress, especially for War Veterens. Through Pranayama, it teaches them to focus on the breath. More oxygen is brought to the head and the rest of the body which is known to help in relaxation. Kapalabathi (also a Kriya) for instance, helps with unlocking mental and emotional blockages. It encourages a tranquil state of mind, and can help relieve stress and depression. The chanting of AUM, which is the vibration of life, can also create a calming effect and help smoothen the mind. With regular practice, the focus on the breath and the internal chanting of AUM becomes habitual and can be a method to turn to whenever they sense a flashback or panic attack coming.
Rebuilding body awareness
We need to be aware of what our body needs in order to take care of it. In yoga, there is focus on the breath and builds an understanding of how our body moves with it. We notice the connection between body and mind, emotions and physical asanas — How anxiety about doing a pose ends up tensing the muscles and throwing you off balance. Or the calmness of hearing your own inhalations and exhalations during Ujjayi breathing. Physical practice of asanas can also help rebuild self-confidence and establish a friendly relationship with the body. This is especially so for survivors of sexual assault, many of whom hate their bodies.
Learning to be in control
Trauma survivors often do not feel in control of their mind and body. They may be able to logicize and think rationally on a normal basis. But when fear or strong emotions are triggered by association, all logic fails to work as the brain goes into survivor mode or shut down. These triggers are often random and can happen anytime. The fear of panic in itself can also increase the anxiety multifold. Yoga, however, teaches control. Through the lengthening of the breath in Pranayama, or learning to focus while in balancing poses, or holding in a pose for long periods of time, it all trains mental discipline and is reassuring that you still are in control.
Channeling of energy
In yoga, there is practice of channeling energy towards energy centres such as the heart, throat, forehead etc during Asanas. Similarly, trauma survivors can also learn to channel their fear (negative) towards something more beneficial (positive). For example, determination to hold asanas, or the fight to keep trying and never give up when unable to do a pose.
It is important for friends and family members to be supportive and help create a safe environment. Trauma survivors need to learn that the stressful situation is now over. They need to know that they are now safe and have no need for fear. This takes time to slowly rewire the brain, to relearn to trust. Patience and encouragement is key. Yoga can be helpful when introduced the practice slowly, but it is also important to understand that it can be very difficult for them to stay in Savasana or in any meditative state due to the sudden quietening of the mind which may bring up traumatic memories that they do not wish to relive. Symptoms for PTSD can last for months or years, or they may come and go in waves. However, with enough time, patience, willpower, and consistent yoga practice, the symptoms can be minimised, or even be eliminated.