While the world is statistically safer than ever, several recent and long-running wars have put extra strain on mental health services, many of which were already struggling. As many as 8 million adults in the Unites States suffer from PTSD every year, including as many as 20% of Iraq war veterans, and 10% of Gulf War veterans. This is not to mention the need for continued support of Vietnam veterans, 30% of whom have suffered PTSD at some point.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just a military problem, either. Between 7-8% of the general population are suffering from PTSD, with women in both the military and society in general being disproportionately affected. 10% of women will experience PTSD at some point, compared to around 4% of men, owing to a range of personal traumas and tragedies.

With many countries around the world seeking to alleviate the pressure on mental health services, high risk individuals are often prioritised.

Yet the staggering number of veterans taking their own lives – perhaps more than 22 people every single day in the U.S. – shows how much further we have to go in helping our veterans, and PTSD sufferers in general. The need to find an alternative treatment is a pressing one – and it’s here where yoga shows so much promise.

Explaining PTSD

PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, is a deeply disruptive mental illness that results from traumatic memories. It’s thought that the brain has trouble processing and storing these memories, resulting in a person reliving them over and over again. This can often be an involving and overwhelming process, with the memories bringing back feelings of fear, panic, pain or nausea.

As a chronic condition, PTSD has been shown to decrease brain activity in the prefrontal cortex (associated with memory and emotional learning), and increase activity in the amygdala (associated with the body’s fear response).

This means that individuals with PTSD can feel constantly on edge, as well as being numbed to moments of positivity. This inability for the brain or the fear response to switch off can interrupt sleep and eating habits, making it extremely difficult to have a normal and happy life.

How is PTSD usually treated?

There are two widely used clinical approaches to treating PTSD. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) involves talking through incidents of past trauma that are causing PTSD, gradually working through the thoughts and feelings that trouble them. By going through the events with a qualified therapist, sufferers can challenge and address negative thoughts, and disassociate themselves from any perceptions of personal guilt.

The other common treatment is Prolonged Exposure (PE). PE involves reliving the events in a safe environment, much in the same way someone might treat a fear of snakes by holding them. While difficult initially, consciously repeating and talking about the event can make the memory of it seem less intimidating, reducing its impact.

Medication such as antidepressants is also used to complement these treatments, and reduce symptoms of depression that can stop people from seeking further treatment. The effect they have on the brain however is still not fully understood, with different medications working differently for each person.

Ultimately, the prevalence of PTSD has raised important questions around understanding the efficacy of various treatment methods, and the role complementary treatments can play in supporting recovery.

Yoga and PTSD

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, around two thirds of people receiving CPT or PE therapy were still suffering from PTSD at the end of their treatment. While these therapies can help a great deal, there is clearly still room for other approaches to treating PTSD, and managing the condition in the long term. Yoga may not be not a panacea for PTSD, but it shows significant promise in helping people along the path to wellbeing.

A study from the Journal of Traumatic Stress tested this hypothesis by monitoring the effects of yoga on 21 male service veterans, who had been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The study showed that the group who practised yoga reacted less strongly to intense stimulus, showed reduced PTSD symptoms, breathed more slowly and were less anxious than the control group.
Another study by the University of Toronto focused on 80 individuals dealing with PTSD.

The participants undertook an 8-week yoga programme with the following goals:
1. To develop the ability to relax, and better deal with trauma & related stress
2. To cultivate mindful awareness of the mind, body, breathing and environment
3. To improve cognition, behavior and emotions relating to self-esteem and self-efficacy
4. To enhance physical flexibility, strength, and balance
5. To reintegrate socially

The results indicated that participants undertaking the yoga course showed reduced symptoms of PTSD, slept better, were less stressed, less anxious and more resilient than the control group. While research is continuing into the precise physiological effects of yoga, the effect of regulating your breathing, pose and posture have a calming effect that extends to the central nervous system, and ultimately the brain. Combined with gentle exercise, this has the effect of reducing anxiety, and allowing people to deal with difficult memories in a more considered and
rational manner.

While yoga may not be suitable for everyone, what’s crucial is that it offers people a choice in how they approach treatment. As a complementary form of medicine, yoga can empower doctors by alleviating the burden on services; and empower the people dealing with PTSD, who gain a simple, stress-free approach to treating the condition.

It’s extremely important to keep a clinical approach, and find treatments that are backed by research and evidence. But the most important thing in treating a variety of challenging conditions is catering to the needs of the patient. The growing evidence of yoga’s impact on mental health conditions is incredibly heartening, and could be life changing for so many people.

This post was written by The Minded Institute, a world leader in the development and implementation of yoga therapy for those suffering with ptsd, and for people with mental health and chronic physical health problems.