The homecoming of military servicemen and women once thought to be so sweet is now fraught with anxiety, stress, and broken relationships. We are witnessing an unprecedented time in our Armed Forces where deaths by suicide outweigh deaths incurred in combat. This is something that cannot be ignored.
One of the common conditions among combat veterans is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is the name given to the severe condition that develops after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic events. Symptoms common to this condition are recurring flashbacks, avoiding thoughts or people associated with the traumatic event, or numbing of memories of the event, and high levels of anxiety. On a body level, headaches, muscle tension and pain, chest pain, fatigue, upset stomach, and sleep problems are experienced. Psychologically, nightmares, restlessness, anxiety, lack of motivation or focus, irritability or anger, and depression are common to this condition. Manifestations behaviorally are a tendency to over or under eat, abuse of drugs and alcohol, and withdrawing socially.
PTSD is an epidemic among veterans returning home. According to the National Center for PTSD, about 30 percent of men and women who spent time in a war zone experienced PTSD at some point in their lives. And roughly 20 percent of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan experience PTSD in some form. PTSD is also responsible for many of the issues – drugs, alcohol addiction, alienation from friends and family, unhappiness, and suicide – that soldiers face after returning home.
It is without a doubt that practicing yoga helps calm troubling emotions and thought patterns, chronic tension, and may ease suffering from the result of emotional or physical trauma, including PTSD.
I had the pleasure of working with Lt. Col. Shaye Molendyke, who has served in the military for over 20 years. She told me first hand how yoga not only helped her get over traumatic experiences, but it also gave her family support through difficult times.
Together we built a yoga program that helps those who have served in the military or underwent a traumatic experience. We learned that yoga directly addresses the fight-or-flight response, which is at the core of PTSD. The way the fight-or-flight response works is simple — it is a reaction that prepares the body to fight or flee from a potential threat. Yoga deals directly with the connection between the mind and the body, which helps those with PTSD retrain the fight-or-flight response.
By its very nature, yoga acts as a powerful medicine by teaching us how to engage the parasympathetic nervous system more effectively and at will — that’s the key. Regaining emotional control over our bodies and learning the signals of when our bodies are moving into fight-or-flight mode (sympathetic nervous system overdrive) is just one simple way yoga can help our soldiers.
Memories of combat are not just stored in the brain but, of course, within the body itself, usually under well guarded lock and key. Through the recent revelations of where neuropeptides reside in the body and how they function, we have learned that we can actually unlock those memories and release them! It’s very exciting and it is precisely why yoga is so effective — awakening us somatically through the poses and attention to the breath. Once we can be back in our bodies, we can address these unwanted memories and create new, healthier pathways that lead to a better feeling-state.
But we also have to understand that because anxiety and PTSD are held in the body, yoga can sometimes trip those wires if we are not gentle in how veterans attempt new poses too quickly. So when teaching yoga to someone with PTSD, teachers need to show their students how to be the masters of their own bodies and to only go as far as they can tolerate, then come back to a safe place. This pendulum-like movement through “touching in” to those tender places and then back to a safe zone is how they will begin to heal themselves.
The best way to do this is to use words that encourage feeling, breathing, listening to the body and letting go of judgment. This acts as a soothing and healing balm to a warrior’s worn-out nervous system.
With repeated practice and guidance, a yoga practice can bring long-term relief and a fresh perspective on life for PTSD sufferers. The military has recognized this, and even started offering yoga classes for soldiers on active duty.
Editor’s Note: This post was written by Beth Shaw, Founder and President of YogaFit Training Systems, Inc. and YogaFitCanada. In addition to boosting immunity, easing migraines, and improving sleep, yoga can also be used successfully by combat veterans to treat many of the symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.