Yoga as a Mechanism for Moderating PTSD and C-PTSD Symptoms
Trauma can lead to chronic feelings of fear and anger. These intense negative emotions can lead to persistent issues of muscle tension in the body that can lead to migraine headaches, back pain, and even conditions such as fibromyalgia.
One of the ways we can purposefully control our nervous system is through breathing and exercise. This allows us to achieve a balance between the autonomic nervous systems, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS stimulates us to action (for example stimulates the heart rate to go faster) while the PNS works in the opposite direction (decreases heart rate, and regulates basic functions such as digestion and sleep). When these two systems are balanced we have better control over our stress response, as well as our emotional responses to minor frustrations and challenges (1).
Yoga and the Nervous System
Yoga classes consist of breath practices, stretches or postures, and meditation practice. While different methods of teaching yoga have different levels of focus on each of these aspects, each one of these practices will likely benefit anyone working to balance their nervous system and regulate their stress response. Historically, many have reported improved emotional health when keeping a regular program of exercise and this effect has been reported in particular for people who practice yoga. In the last decade, researchers conducted scientific studies investigating the effectiveness of yoga on psychiatric conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In 2014 trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk and colleagues conducted a study with 64 women experiencing chronic treatment-resistant PTSD symptoms. The women were randomly assigned to 10 weeks of trauma-informed yoga or supportive women’s health education. At the end of the study, 16 of the 31 women in the yoga group (52%) no longer met the criteria for PTSD, compared to 6 of the 29 (21%) of the woman in the supportive education group (2). While both groups showed an initial positive response, the supportive women’s group reverted back to baseline for PTSD symptoms while the yoga group maintained improvements, indicating that the physical aspect of yoga was responsible for the improvements rather than the social connections of the group (3).
A similar study investigated the effects of 20 weeks of trauma-sensitive yoga classes for women with treatment-resistant C-PTSD and dissociative symptomatology. At the end of 20 weeks, the women experienced significant reductions in both PTSD and dissociative symptoms (4).
Bottom-Up Emotion Regulation
The studies investigating the relationship between yoga and symptoms of PTSD suggest a different way to approach treatment. Rather than attempting to use the mind to control the nervous system and stress response, we can also work with the body as a way of gaining control over the nervous system.
When we are balanced in our autonomic nervous system we are better able to control how we react emotionally and how intensely we respond to stress and frustration. When we combine therapy and physical approaches such as yoga, we are giving ourselves the best chance at reducing symptoms and moving forward towards a more healthy life.
- Van der Kolk, B. (2014). Learning to inhabit your body:Yoga. In B. van der Kolk. The body keeps the score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. Penguin UK.
- Van der Kolk, B. A., Stone, L., West, J., Rhodes, A., Emerson, D., Suvak, M., & Spinazzola, J. (2014). Yoga as an adjunctive treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: A randomized controlled trial. J Clin Psychiatry, 75(6), e559-65.
- Van der Kolk, et al., (2014). Yoga as an adjunctive treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: A randomized controlled trial.
- Price, M., Spinazzola, J., Musicaro, R., Turner, J., Suvak, M., Emerson, D., & van der Kolk, B. (2017). Effectiveness of an extended yoga treatment for women with chronic posttraumatic stress disorder. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 23(4), 300-309.