Transcending Trauma: How Yoga Heals
Initial study results revealed that participation in trauma-informed gentle yoga leads to a significant reduction in symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
Elaine breathes slowly, in and out, for a few rounds of simple pranayama before she has to stop. Images too scary for her to describe race in and overwhelm her. After a few moments, with Jocelyn Jenkins, her therapist, sitting next to her, Elaine tries again. Several sessions later they move on to very basic, very slow sun salutations; she becomes aware of her muscles, noticing any resistance in her body, stopping when she gets too agitated.
Although these postures and breathing exercises sound easy and soothing for most of us, they represent enormous progress for Elaine (not her real name), who cut herself off from any connection with her body or her emotions years ago. Jenkins remembers the first time she met her. Elaine was very agitated, in a constant state of hyper-arousal, “alert to every movement in the room, every sound, even the rise of my eyebrow,” Jenkins says. But when it came to talking about her emotions, Elaine shut down.
Here’s why. As a young girl, Elaine was brutally raped. Unbelievably, no one in her family noticed—not even when she came to the dinner table covered from head to toe in bruises.
Without anyone to guide her or help her make sense of what had happened, Elaine tried to rid herself of any residual sensations she felt—she binged and purged, used laxatives, and finally severely restricted her calories in an attempt to numb the pain, be invisible, and “yet at the same time,” Jenkins told me, “get someone to notice.” But no one did. Elaine felt alone and abandoned by the people she thought would protect her. By the time she checked into the Eating Recovery Center outside of Denver, Colorado, where Jenkins met (and noticed) her, she had a history of unsavory relationships with men, self-destructive behaviors, and no idea how to move forward.
Elaine is a survivor of childhood trauma, and her inability to control her emotions, trust her body, or form meaningful and loving relationships is a common cluster of side effects associated with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD), according to Judith Herman, professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard and author of Trauma and Recovery, who coined the term. This particularly insidious form of PTSD affects those who suffer from chronic childhood abuse.
While we often think of PTSD as the intense and unexplained symptoms military men and women experience coming home from battle, this anxiety disorder can take many forms and touch a much wider population. Being raped, getting hit by a car, witnessing a violent crime, being in a war zone, losing your best friend to cancer, or even being scared of the possibility of something bad happening can all contribute to PTSD. How you deal with how you feel in the aftermath of such events determines the level of trauma that gets lodged in your cells.
Yoga can make a big difference for trauma survivors like Elaine, and we are beginning to see more research that backs up her experience. A three-year NIH-funded yoga and trauma study conducted at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts, with women who have treatment-resistant complex PTSD, has shown promising results. Bessel van der Kolk, MD, the study’s principal investigator, and his colleagues presented preliminary findings at the 2010 International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies conference in Montreal last November. Initial study results revealed that participation in trauma-informed gentle yoga leads to a significant reduction (over 30 percent) in symptoms of post-traumatic stress, including fewer intrusive thoughts and less dissociation from the body. By the end of the study (after only 10 weeks of yoga) several women in the yoga group no longer met diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
Other smaller studies show yoga increases heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of how robust the brain’s arousal systems are. It appears that traumatized people have unusually low HRV, says van der Kolk—who is also founder and medical director of the Trauma Center—which could explain why they are “so reactive to minor stresses and so prone to develop a variety of physical illnesses.” Yoga’s ability to touch us on every level of our being—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—makes it a powerful and effective means for trauma victims to reinhabit their bodies safely, calm their minds, experience emotions directly, and begin to feel a sense of strength and control.
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