PTSD is now a recognised mental health condition, affecting not just soldiers returning from conflict zones, but numerous others who have experienced traumatic events such as violent assault, car accidents, severe illness or a difficult birth.
In other words, PTSD is remarkably common. Yet the treatments for it are surprisingly limited. In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends only two: trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CPT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), both of which have an evidence base to support their use. Although many other treatments have been tried with PSTD sufferers – including drug treatments, rewind therapy or emotional freedom therapy – solid evidence of their effectiveness isn’t available.
A new, small-scale study – sadly, almost all the studies on PTSD treatments are small-scale – suggests that yoga may help alleviate one of the main PTSD symptoms.
PTSD sufferers experience hyper-arousal: a sense of heightened anxiety in which the sufferer is constantly alert to possible danger – always looking for an escape route, for example. In the case of birth trauma, the mother might be fearful of what will happen to her baby and refuse to let anyone else hold it.
The study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) tested the breath control exercises and mediation used in yoga with 11 soldiers suffering PTSD (with another 10 in the control group) as a way of reducing hyperarousal. It found that the 11 soldiers “showed reduced signs of PTSD compared to the 10 in the control group. Symptoms such as respiration, heart rate and eye blink magnitude are indicators of arousal, and were measured to gather data about the effectiveness of this technique.”
It’s hard to draw firm conclusions from such a tiny study. But there are good reasons for hoping that the research can be replicated. In the UK, treatments such as trauma-focused CBT and EMDR are hard to come by – patients can wait months for an NHS referral, and as a result some patients are given antidepressant drugs or counselling that is not trauma-specific instead.
Yoga teachers, on the other hand, are in plentiful supply. Perhaps more importantly, the use of meditation and controlled breathing puts the patient back in charge of their condition: anyone, with a little training, can learn these techniques. As Richard Davidson, founder of CIHM, says: “Well-being is a skill. It can be learned.”