When I mentioned to a patient I was writing a blog on yoga for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she poured out her story to me. Her ex-husband had been abusive, first verbally and emotionally, and then came the day he shook her. Violently. She considered taking her own life in the dark days that followed. Yoga, particularly the meditation aspect, as well as other counseling, brought her to a better place over time. Decades later, she is happily married and has practiced yoga faithfully ever since. Sometimes a therapy’s anecdotal evidence is so powerful academic research is merely icing on the cake.
Walker and Pacik (2017) reported 3 cases of military veterans showing positive outcomes with controlled rhythmic yogic breathing on post-traumatic stress disorder. Yoga has been theorized to impact the body’s reaction to stress by helping to modulate important physiological systems, which, when compromised, allow PTSD to develop and thrive. This particular study focuses on 3 veterans with PTSD and their responses to Sudarshan Kriya (SKY), a type of pranayama (controlled yogic breathing). Over the course of 5 days, the participants engaged in 3-4 hours/day of light stretching/yoga, group talks about self-care and self-empowerment, and SKY. There are 4 components of breathwork in SKY: (1) Ujjayi (‘‘Victorious Breath’’); (2) Bhastrika (‘‘Bellows Breath’’); (3) Chanting Om three times with very prolonged expiration; and, (4) Sudarshan Kriya, (an advanced form of rhythmic, cyclical breathing).
This study by Walker and Pacik (2017) included 3 voluntary participants: a 75 and a 72 year old male veteran and a 57 year old female veteran, all whom were experiencing a varying cluster of PTSD symptoms for longer than 6 months. Pre- and post-course scores were evaluated from the PTSD Checklist (a 20-item self-reported checklist), the Military Version (PCL-M). All the participants reported decreased symptoms of PTSD after the 5 day training course. The PCL-M scores were reduced in all 3 participants, particularly in the avoidance and increased arousal categories. Even the participant with the most severe symptoms showed impressive improvement. These authors concluded Sudarshan Kriya (SKY) seemed to decrease the symptoms of PTSD in 3 military veterans.
The first time I experienced the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was when my patient dissociated during a treatment session and relived the rape that had occurred when she was ten years old. It was devastating. I didn’t know what to do. She was unresponsive to my intervention. Her eyes didn’t see me, alternating between wide-eyed, horrified panic and clenched-closed, lip biting excruciating pain. It was my late night and I was alone in the clinic. I sat helplessly next to my sweet patient hoping and praying that her torture would end quickly. When she finally stopped writhing, she slept. Deep and hard. Finally she woke up disoriented and scared. She grabbed her things and left. For me, this experience was my initiation into the world of trauma.
Approximately 5-6 % of men and 10-12% of women will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives. Researchers believe that 10% of people exposed to trauma will go on to develop PTSD. The expression of PTSD symptoms can present differently in men and women. Men may have more externalizing disorders progressing along a scale that includes vigilance, resistance, defiance, aggression and homicidal thoughts. Women tend to present with internalizing disorders such as depression, anxiety, exaggerated startle responses, dissociation, and suicidal thoughts. The research is clear that both men and women with PTSD display changes in brain function. The mid brain (amygdala, basal ganglia and hippocampus) tends to be overactive in sounding alarm signals while the prefrontal cortex fails to turn off the mid brain when a threat is no longer present. Since the prefrontal cortex is not always functioning correctly, traditional talk therapy may not be as effective for treating PTSD. Instead, say many researchers, breath and movement exercises may help regulate brain functioning. Yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation have been shown to have a positive impact on down regulating the mid brain and improving cerebral output. As pelvic floor therapists we deal with trauma on a daily basis, whether we know it or not. Although we are not trained in psychology, understanding PTSD and equipping ourselves with tools to support our patients is imperative for both our patients and ourselves.
You might be wondering what happened after that frightful night in the clinic? My patient was determined to get better. She had a non-relaxing pelvic floor. She was a teacher and was plagued by urinary distress. She either had terrible urgency or would go for hours and not be able to empty her bladder. So we met with her therapist to learn strategies to help us to be able to work together without triggering dissociation. It was a slow road, but the three of us working together helped my patient not only reach her goals but to be able to be skillful enough to maintain her gains using a dilator for self-treatment.