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Yoga for PTSD

It’s long been thought that yoga and meditation practices can reduce the effects of PTSD. A new study by the VA Center confirms that the use of complementary and integrative health modalities, such as yoga and meditation, do in fact have positive impact when treating returning veterans.

What does it mean to return from war? For many veterans, reintegration into civilian life has significant challenges, not least of which are the complexities of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). Like any emotional reaction, the effects of PTSD are relational to our autonomic nervous system. PTSD activates the sympathetic nervous system—releasing the “stress hormone” cortisol. This is physiologically reflected by an increased heart rate, tense muscles, and dilated pupils. Over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system can have detrimental and lasting effects on the body. As most of us, veteran or not, can attest, it’s exhausting to be stressed.

Activation of the sympathetic nervous system evokes the opposite response. Our fight-or-flight mode is calmed, heart rate slows, and muscles relax. It’s long been understood that activities such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s thought that these practices can positively reduce the effects of PTSD, and a new study published in September confirms the use of yoga and meditation as successful complementary and integrative health (CIH) therapies for veterans receiving care in the United States Veterans Administration (VA) care.

Led by Dr. A. Rani Elwy of the VA Center for Healthcare Organization and Implementation Research at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital, the study purports that yoga and meditation can in fact be used as modalities in the care of returning veterans. According to PsychCentral:

Veterans in the study reported using 14 different CIH therapies. Yoga was the most popular, with nearly half of veterans participating. This was followed by meditation, acupuncture and tai chi… “[O]ur study showed that meditation, tai chi, and yoga appear to improve overall physical and mental health and reduced perceived stress,” write the authors.

Of course this isn’t the only study that has confirmed the effectiveness of yoga and meditation as treatment for veteran wellbeing. Yoga Unify co-founder Judy Weaver co-founded Connected Warriors to bring elements of these practices to veterans. Connected Warriors not only hosts classes both in-person and online, but also provides yoga gear, including mats, props, and clothing, to servicemembers around the globe. Michael, MSG, a US Army veteran with 17 years of experience was originally apprehensive when attending his first class of what he “perceived as new age stretching for women.” He’s now a teacher who specializes in bringing the practice to fellow veterans. According to Connected Warriors:

Having seen and experienced all the benefits of Connected Warriors yoga, I knew I had to share those benefits with my fellow Servicemembers, our Veterans, and Their Families. I’ve had the opportunity to teach injured Soldiers, Family members who deal with the stress of frequent deployments, and seasoned Veterans who continue to serve our nation. It’s incredibly rewarding to see their practice grow as they realize the positive effects of yoga on their mind and body.

It’s not just the emotional benefits of stress reduction that veterans gain by exploring CIH therapies. While the September VA Study notes that “none of the CIH therapies were linked to improvements in veterans’ pain intensity or level of engagement in their health care,” a 2015 National Institute of Health study reported that yoga may in fact help veterans reduce dependency on pain management medication. To say, yoga may not reduce pain, but rather provide a coping mechanism for long-term chronic pain management. According to the NIH:

Student participants often described their struggles with symptoms of depression, sadness, and stress-related anxiety. For many, the outcome of learning to control these symptoms through yoga practice also provided an opportunity to reduce some of the medications they were taking.

As veterans return home from war, it’s both a moral and practical concern to ensure their wellbeing. Yoga and meditation is proving to be ever-more relevant in this care. Below is a list of organizations to consider supporting to help keep this work going

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