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Efficacy of Yoga for Treatment-Resistant Post-Traumatic Stress

An abusive childhood, relationship or other traumatic experiences may be in the past but the traumas remain deeply held in the body-mind.

An abusive childhood, relationship or other traumatic experiences may be in the past but the traumas remain deeply held in the body-mind. Even if any such events or experiences may be deeply locked away, trauma imprints our minds, beliefs and bodies in ways that often create dysfunction, pain and disease. The good news is that healing is within reach. Author and highly respected trauma specialist Dr. Peter Levine has said, “Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.”

The landmark ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study conducted by Kaiser and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention correlated a direct, but not surprising, relationship between traumas and depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. What was surprising was that trauma is implicated in a whole host of chronic illnesses and diseases like fibromyalgia, cancer, heart disease, auto-immune diseases and more. To simplify how this happens, the body-mind’s healthy, adaptive reaction to trauma can get stuck a state of high alert. Over time, the brain becomes wired for fear and the chronic elevation of stress hormones create inflammation and disease in the body. What was most alarming finding from the ACE study was that six or more adverse events shortened life by up to 20 years. The results sound a loud call to action.

Healing is important in the long term to prevent disease and/or a shortened lifespan and also to manage everyday quality of life stressors. The fear, memory impairment, anxiety and low self-esteem arising from abuse often lock people in a cycle that robs them of happiness and vitality. Many trauma survivors abuse alcohol and/or take drugs to numb the psychic and chronic physical pain associated with trauma. Others fear rejection or lack the ability to create healthy boundaries and thereby attract more abuse. Still others become over-achieving workaholics to medicate low self-esteem. Most don’t realize that the behaviors form a way of coping with unprocessed trauma because the body, mind, emotions and spirit are so dynamically enmeshed.

Bessell van der Kolk, M.D, pioneer in PTSD research and author of The Body Keeps the Score sums it up, “Trauma is not the story of something awful that happened in the past, but a residue of imprints left behind in people’s sensory and hormonal systems. Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves. Most people need some form of bodywork to regain a sense of safety in their bodies.”

The main goals of trauma recovery are to teach techniques to soothe the overly amped up nervous system, to release held trauma, reset the brain and empower with self-soothing and coping skills. Having studied PTSD since the 1970’s, van der Kolk has become a proponent of yoga’s body and breath work to help soothe and regulate the arousal system and teach people how to be safely in their bodies.  In 2011, van der Kolk and colleagues reported the results of research to evaluate yoga’s benefits in trauma recovery. The study, Efficacy of Yoga for Treatment-Resistant Post-Traumatic Stress, demonstrated that 10 weeks of yoga practice markedly reduced the trauma symptoms of patients that had failed to respond to any medication or to any other treatment. In fact, more than 50 percent of the participants no longer met the criteria for PTSD. This tells us that we need not suffer for years when even those that had failed all other treatments found relief in only 10 weeks.

Trauma survivors don’t always have to “go back there” to heal. Current research has demonstrated the limitations of talk therapy in trauma recovery, and The National Institute for Clinical and Behavioral Medicine has included the need for bodywork and meditation as key. Today there are many methods for healing trauma that don’t require being touched or talking about traumatic events.

Where trauma is concerned, the adage of the good, the bad and the ugly is seen in the reverse. The ugly truth is that the trauma happened and pretending it didn’t happen cannot spare us; the body does indeed, keep the score. The bad is how trauma’s unhealed scars can create a prison of negative beliefs, behaviors, chronic illnesses and diseases. But the good is very, very good; we can free ourselves from trauma’s shackles and live to our longest lifespan and highest potential.

Devpreet Kaur is a PTSD survivor, former director of pharmaceutical training and compassionate yoga teacher dedicated to treating trauma and chronic pain using various body-mind modalities. She will be delivering an eight-week course Letting GO – Releasing Trauma & Relieving Chronic Pain in October at Live in Joy Yoga in Audubon. For more information, see the course description on page xx or visit DevpreetKaur.com.

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