Healing the Wounds of War: Yoga Used to Treat Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

The deepest wounds of war may not be the physical ones. It’s hard for anyone who has never been at war to even begin to imagine the amount of stress soliders in combat are under when they put their lives in the line of fire. Veterans who have been in active combat “suffer and bear the deepest wounds of war,” says General James Cook, a brigadier with 30 years of service in the U.S. Army Reserves.

 The remnants of such wounds may be as visible as injuries and physical disabilities, or may be the unseen but often more devastating emotional scars embedded in the psyche. A staggering number of U.S. troops suffer from such unseen wounds.

A RAND Corporation study released in April 2008 estimated that nearly 300,000 (20 percent) of the 1.6 million soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Treatment of PTSD for these scarred warriors could cost up to $35 billion over their lifetimes, according to another study by Columbia University.

The symptoms may come soon after their return from combat duty. However, post-traumatic stress disorder at times may surface only years later. The veteran warriors may be tormented by frequent flashbacks of the traumatic events they faced while in combat. These intense experiences can overcome the sufferer with feelings of depression and anxiety, as few veterans know how to handle the emotional energy that continues to be lodged in his or her body cells.

To help mend the troubled psyches of America’s wounded warriors, the Defense Department has gone full blast into alternative therapies, including yoga therapy. The U.S. Army has started a $4 million research program to study further the possibilities of using yoga, meditation and other alternative therapies for treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

Researchers have found that trauma can remain locked deep within the body’s cells.  The initial traumatic event caused the mind to disconnect from the body, as the body’s subconscious survival mechanisms took over. This disconnection is continued by post-traumatic stress disorder. The target of treatment is to re-establish that connection.

Yoga for post-traumatic stress facilitates the soldier’s efforts to reintegrate the body with the mind. The use of yoga to treat post-traumatic stress disorder has gained increased popularity in the military after a pilot project at the U.S. Army’s Walter Reed Medical Center found that yoga improved the sleeping patterns among soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and reduced stress and anxiety after only twelve weeks of practice.

The intention is not for yoga to replace conventional treatments involving psychotherapy and medication, but to complement them. The various poses of yoga promote flexibility in the soldier’s bodies and bring them relief from pain. The discipline of yoga to focus the mind on the present helps them confront moments when their memories of the traumatic event are triggered, leading them to reach a state of self-calm. With yoga, the stressed-out warrior can achieve personal peace.

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