Study: Yoga Helps Veterans Suffering from PTSD
Preliminary results from a small, government-funded study found that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) showed improvement in their symptoms after ten weeks of yoga classes. The study was led by an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and consisted of twice-weekly yoga classes, plus fifteen minutes of daily practice at home.
PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that occurs after exposure to trauma. It is epidemic among soldiers and veterans: 10 percent of Gulf War vets and 30 percent of Vietnam vets have been diagnosed, and the numbers for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan could be as high as 20 percent.
Experts think that yoga’s emphasis on relaxation and awareness can help those who suffer from PTSD manage their symptoms. “One of the most powerful effects of yoga is to work on cognitive and physiological stress,” says Sat Bir S. Khalsa, Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and the leader of the yoga study. “What we believe is happening, is that through the control of attention on a target—the breath, the postures, the body—that kind of awareness generates changes in the brain, in the limbic system, and these changes in thinking focus more in the moment, less in the past, and it quiets down the anxiety-provoking chatter going on in the head.
People become less reactive and the hormone-related stress cycle starts to calm down.” Khalsa says that yoga is an important way of resolving one of PTSD’s most common symptoms: the disassociation of body and mind, also known as a “flashback.” If triggered, the brain will replay the traumatic event as if it were really happening. But yoga’s emphasis on meditation and being in the present moment can be a defense against it.
So far the study has assessed nine veteran subjects. Six of them reported notable improvement, while three did not. Khalsa hopes to repeat the study with a total of 60 subjects, but is having trouble finding recruits—yoga’s reputation as “new age-y” and “feminine” makes it unpopular among many of the soldiers. Still, soldiers who have taken up yoga are quick to praise its benefits. “I think what the yoga has really allowed me to do is give me the ability to ground myself,” said Joseph Muxie, who served in the military in the late 70s and early 80s. “As a result, I’m more peaceful with myself in whatever moment I happen to be in.”