Healing from PTSD with Yoga: A Research Based Approach

When most people think of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), they picture a veteran suffering the consequences of all they’ve seen at war. But this isn’t always the case. 

In fact, the American Psychiatric Association found that PTSD affects 3.5 percent of U.S. adults every year, from all nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures, and at all ages. Though that might not seem like a large number, we must take into consideration those who are struggling with PTSD and don’t even know it. If 1 in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime, how many people will go undiagnosed?

To be diagnosed with PTSD, an individual must have experienced a traumatic event, either indirectly or directly. I, for example, am still battling the consequences of the ugly divorce which unraveled between my parents when I was 8 years old. I directly experienced that. I was in the middle of them both—confused, hurt, scared—and eventually separated from my mother.

An example of an indirect traumatic event would be a family learning about the loss of a loved one or a first responder being on scene at a bad car accident. Anything that causes intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, dreams, or memories can be classified as traumatic, and trauma can be the result of one event or several repeated events. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association, those battling PTSD may experience symptoms such as:

  • Avoidance of anything that relates to the traumatic event and is considered a “trigger.” This could include people, places, activities, objects, and situations.
  • An inability to remember certain aspects of the traumatic event or denial of the event even happening.
  • Self-blame or blame toward others, which could lead to self harm or reckless behavior.
  • Fear, anger, horror, guilt, or shame.
  • Detaching from other people or activities previously enjoyed due to lack of happiness.
  • Trouble sleeping or concentrating.

In my recently published book, Good Enough: Believing Beautiful through Trauma, through Life, through DisorderI connect the trauma from my past to an eating disorder I faced starting in late high school. What I’ve found is my eating disorder was a coping device and way for me to avoid the emotional pain I was in from having a poor relationship with my father, moving out when I was 16, and as I mentioned earlier, being held back by the divorce of my parents and separation from my mom.

PTSD was and sometimes still is a part of my reality. The only difference now is I have new coping strategies to manage the symptoms. 

Before, if I had a flashback, I’d binge to distract myself from the negative feelings. If something triggered me, I’d put on my running shoes and run away from it for miles and miles. If the weight of my past got to be too much and I woke up in a pool of depression, I’d starve myself and start to believe the lie that I’m not worthy of love and belonging. 

I write this in the book: “It’s easy to look at someone who is binge eating and assume they have no self control…What’s more difficult, is to look beneath the surface—understanding that the so-called ‘problem’ is only a symptom of something deeper.“

Cognitive Behaviors Therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy are two common ways to treat PTSD and have been known to help those suffering the mental consequences of trauma as they overcome fears and learn to identify negative patterns of thinking. As for the physical symptoms of trauma, relaxation strategies like deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and aromatherapy can be beneficial techniques for healing and feeling safe again.

For me personally, developing a yoga practice has been the most beneficial form of treatment to address both the mental and physical symptoms I’ve experienced from trauma.

Bessel A. Van Der Kolk, Founder and Medical Director of the Trauma Center at Justice Research Institute, discusses the effects trauma has on the body in the book Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body. He explains how although trauma is something in the past, the triggered sensations an individual has after causes their body to react as if they are in immediate danger. This is largely due to the fight or flight system we all have within us. He writes:

Trauma affects the totality of our organism…People who are traumatized need to have physical and sensory experiences to unlock their bodies, activate effective fight/flight responses, tolerate their sensations, befriend their inner experiences, and cultivate new action patterns.

That new action pattern, he argues, is yoga. Kolk and his colleagues did a study to discover the effect yoga has on PTSD and found that yoga positively impacts the bodily sensations of trauma, which is necessary for healing.

For instance, they found that yoga changes heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is a useful way to measure the arousal system located in the brain stem, and those with a higher HRV have more consecutive heart beats and are known to be more resistant to stress because of their ability to better manage their impulses and emotions. 

I started doing yoga in the beginning of my recovery and was hesitant at first. As a Christian, I didn’t resonate with some of the more spiritual instructors and their messages. I had also told myself my whole life, I’m not flexible, and, Yoga’s not a workout. It turns out, there are several different variations of yoga—fast and cardio driven, slow and meditation focused, movement with your breath, movement with music, long classes, short classes, hot classes—the list goes on.

I found this out after inviting a friend with me to a class I said was slow, stretchy, and relaxing. I was comparing it to the yoga class I had went to a few days earlier, which was a Hatha style with longer holds, mindfulness, and deep breathing. However, when we arrived and set out our mats, the instructor yelled out that we would be doing a combination of cardio, tribal dancing, and core strengthening.

Uhm, are we in the right class? I wondered.

The class, I discovered, was a Buti Yoga class and was much more fast paced and dynamic than most yoga variations. I ended up doing a headstand that day—something I never thought was possible—and had more fun than I had doing any other type of exercise. Being that my friend enjoyed it so much too, Buti yoga became our Friday tradition and was something we looked forward to every week.

I’d feel high afterward and more than once, would have some kind of emotional experience and break down in tears during final resting pose, Shavasana

I’ve experienced for myself, the healing benefits of yoga. It’s helped me heal from the wounds of my past, while also giving me a new lenses to see my body in. I’ve gained appreciation for my inner and outer strength while moving through postures that challenge me, shape me, and grow me. 

I Am Maris is a powerful documentary on Netflix about how yoga can positively impact those recovering from eating disorders.

Yoga, especially, gives you a safe place to wrestle with symptoms of PTSD. Your mat will become your friend, meaning some days your relationship with it is better than others. It is a non-judgmental environment where the body and mind connect to address the wounds of our past. 

As Kolk said: “Yoga is part of and ancient system meant precisely to address human suffering—and particularly to address it in the body, where it lives.”

Although none of the techniques listed in this article are wrong ways to move past PTSD, I think it’s safe there are many unhealthy ways of coping with trauma. 

To end, I want to ask you these 3 questions:

  1. Are there any events from your past that have caused you to experience symptoms of PTSD?
  2. If yes, in what ways have you coped previously that may not have been helpful?
  3. Moving forward, what is one new strategy (either spoke of in this article or elsewhere) that you can try?

For more on trauma and healing, I highly recommend you read by book: Good Enough: Believing Beautiful through Trauma, through Life, through DisorderI make it clear in the book that, “Unprocessed trauma is the culprit of unfinished healing,” and I help you find that healing within yourself and in God. Because if you believe it, you can recover from anything, and you can and will live a healthier life as a healthier you.

Follow me on Instagram at @believingbeautiful for inspiration to fuel your journey. I can’t wait to watch you overcome your battles and grow into a more authentic version of yourself. 

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