Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common among men and women who have served in the armed forces, affecting at least 7%. These individuals experience highly distressing situations and are more likely to experience traumatic events than the general populace.
While it’s easy to think of PTSD as something that only occurs with combat veterans, it also affects those who may have experienced traumatic events in their daily routines, such as sexual assault or harassment.
Regardless of the reason, PTSD can be a debilitating condition. It makes returning home and transitioning to the civilian world yet another challenge they must face, as it can complicate their daily routines and impact their ability to navigate social situations and maintain professional and social relationships.
Thankfully, a growing body of treatment options is available to aid veterans with PTSD on their road to recovery. One such treatment that is successful in helping veterans not only cope with but overcome their PTSD is practicing yoga.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) arises from experiencing or witnessing a distressing event that impacts mental health. This can include combat situations or the immense pressures faced during deployment. Veterans exposed to traumatic incidents while serving in the military face a higher vulnerability to developing PTSD.
PTSD is an often misunderstood and stigmatized condition. Veterans who deal with PTSD are not “crazy,” it’s vital to take an empathetic stance to conditions as detrimental as PTSD. Furthermore, it’s crucial to have a relatively nuanced understanding of the mechanisms behind PTSD.
The symptoms associated with PTSD encompass a range of manifestations, including:
- Recurring Experiences: Revisiting the traumatic event frequently characterizes this symptom of PTSD. Flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts plague the individual, triggered by reminders such as visual cues, sounds, or smells. The sensation of reliving the horrifying incident can be overwhelming and unpleasant, engrossing the person in a distressing state.
- Flashbacks: Flashbacks involve intense and unexpected relivings of the traumatic event, either sparked by reminders or occurring without a specific trigger. During a flashback, the individual may feel that they have been transported back to the distressing situation, accompanied by physical symptoms such as an accelerated heartbeat or profuse sweating. These episodes can be profoundly unsettling and disrupt normal functioning.
- Nightmares: Nightmares related to the traumatic incident are another form of re-experiencing that individuals with PTSD may encounter. These nightmares are often vivid and leave the person waking up with a lingering sense of being trapped in the horrifying experience. The resulting sleep disturbances can harm physical health, making it challenging to achieve restful sleep.
Moreover, PTSD can also affect an individual’s thought processes and mood. Common cognitive and emotional symptoms include negative self-perceptions, pessimistic views of others and the world, guilt, self-blame regarding the traumatic event, and loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities. These manifestations can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and an overall disruption of daily life.
The factors contributing to the development of PTSD in veterans are intricate and diverse, varying based on each individual’s circumstances and experiences. Fundamental causes of PTSD in veterans include:
- Exposure to Combat: Engaging in combat situations poses a significant risk factor for the development of PTSD in veterans. Witnessing or personally enduring traumatic events like death, injury, or violence during these operations can intensify the severity and frequency of PTSD symptoms.
- Traumatic Brain Injuries: PTSD can also be triggered in veterans due to traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) resulting from blast injuries, accidents, or other head traumas. The physical and psychological aftermath of a TBI can contribute to the manifestation of PTSD symptoms.
- Military Sexual Trauma: Another substantial risk factor for veterans experiencing PTSD is military sexual trauma (MST). MST encompasses unwanted sexual advances, attention, harassment, or assault during military service and affects both men and women, often resulting in long-lasting mental health consequences.
- Lack of Social Support: Insufficient social support from loved ones, peers, and friends can contribute to the development of PTSD in veterans. Social isolation or a sense of disconnection from these individuals can exacerbate the effects of trauma and increase the risk of developing PTSD.
- Previous Trauma: Previous experiences of trauma, such as childhood abuse or neglect, can elevate the likelihood of developing PTSD in veterans, especially when combined with the trauma encountered during military service.
How Yoga Empowers Veterans in Overcoming PTSD
PTSD has seen a considerable uptick in treatments in recent times. One such treatment that has proven to be effective is yoga. Yoga has become a global phenomenon in the last few decades and for good reason. This ancient, meditative technique allows nearly anyone to practice and benefit from it.
Yoga in the West refers specifically to a modern adaptation of these ancient techniques into a posture-based physical fitness practice. Yoga focuses on these postural exercises while utilizing calm breathing techniques to boost physical and mental health, making it perfect for veterans with PTSD.
This is because it has been shown to reduce physiological duress in those with PTSD, which helps the nervous system better adapt to triggers and stimuli, as well as preventing the experience of intrusive memories that can cause PTSD episodes.
- Rebuilding and strengthening the mind-body connection: PTSD often disconnects the mind and body. Yoga bolsters the connection between an individual’s mind and body, promoting a deeper awareness of physical and mental sensations. By practicing yoga, veterans can learn to mend the connection between their mind and body that has been severed by their trauma, which reduces stress, anxiety, and feelings of dissociation while grounding them in reality.
- Stress reduction: Because yoga exposes veterans to a myriad of gentle postures, stretches, and exercises that utilize calm breathing to promote deep relaxation while releasing body tension, it can lower their stress and anxiety. This is because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which can stem the “fight-or-flight” response common among PTSD episodes and help them routinely manage their stress levels.
- Emotional regulation: While PTSD often leads to exaggerated and overwhelming emotional responses, yoga can help veterans become more mindful of their surroundings and better regulate their emotions. This can lead to better emotional skills, allowing them to develop healthier personal relationships and reduce the reactivity of their feelings.
- Self-care: Because yoga is a form of physical exercise, it can promote better physical health and well-being. It also helps them become better aware of their bodies and in tune with their physical form, which can help ground them during a potential episode.
- Building resilience and empowerment: Yoga helps veterans with PTSD by giving them an outlet that keeps them constantly engaged in challenging their condition, empowering them to remain steadfast on their road to recovery.
- Support from a community: One of the best things for any veteran with PTSD is social support. Many yoga classes facilitate a supportive, non-judgmental environment–sometimes explicitly designated for veterans–that allows them to develop bonds and connections with others.
As you can see, yoga is a safe and effective means of treating PTSD in veterans that not only helps them manage symptoms and more effectively navigate their daily lives but empowers them to better confront their trauma.
If you or a loved one are struggling with PTSD, reaching out to the VA can be a great first step toward treatment and recovery. If you believe that yoga could be a good solution for PTSD, consider reaching out to Veterans Yoga Project, an organization that gives free in-person and online yoga classes to veterans.