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Why the Military Uses Yoga to Treat PTSD
When most people think about the military, a calm yoga room is probably the last thing that comes to mind. But with veteran unemployment, substance abuse, and suicide rates due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on the rise, the U.S. Armed Forces are using yoga to do what conventional drugs and therapy cannot.
What’s the Deal?
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can occur after experiencing a particularly traumatic episode like a natural disaster, physical or sexual assault, random act of violence, or a prolonged threatening experience. Not surprisingly, the condition is very common among soldiers. According to the National Center for PTSD, about 30 percent of men and women who spent time in war zones experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Specifically, 11 to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 10 percent of Gulf War veterans, and 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans are affected by the disorder. PTSD is responsible for many of the issues (drug and alcohol addiction, alienation from friends and family, unhappiness, and even suicide) that soldiers face after returning home.
Basically, PTSD is the result of the nervous system "freezing" during a mentally traumatic episode. It causes ongoing sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system reactions such as rapid breathing and pulse. Typical symptoms of PTSD include depression, flashbacks or nightmares, trouble sleeping, irritability, emotional detachment, and difficulty concentrating. In the past, the military relied exclusively on psychoanalysis, group counseling sessions, and psychiatric medications to treat thehundreds of thousands of cases throughout the armed forces
The take-orders mindset of the armed forces and the go-your-own-way flow of yoga seem totally opposed, but researchers believe that yoga can be an effective alternative therapy for PTSD among veterans returning home with physical and mental trauma. Studies show that yoga can “unfreeze” the nervous system, alleviating PTSD symptoms . Unlike prescription medications, yoga does not cause undesirable side effects like addiction, lethargy, or weight gain .
Back in 2006 the Department of Defense funded a research project that created a program designed specifically for returning soldiers. Since thenthe program, called Integrative Restoration or iRest, has been used at VA centers throughout the United States. Non-profit programs around the country like Yoga Warriors, The Give Back Yoga Foundation, Yoga For Vets, and Warriors at Ease (to name just a few) use yoga, meditation, and other alternative or holistic techniques to help veterans readjust to civilian life.
Why It Matters
Why yoga as opposed to, say, spinning, or taking long walks in the woods? Yoga specifically encourages mindfulness, which fortifies the body-brain connection and helps soldiers rebuild their senses of control and safety after a traumatic experience. It’s a structured activity, so vets have to approach classes with patience and discipline. Yoga teaches veterans how to control the overactive “fight-or-flight” responses that make daily life with PTSD so difficult. Yoga is all about body alignment and breathing, which can help calm down anxieties and help veterans focus on what’s going on inside instead of responding to external stimuli.
In 2008, the Department of Defense funded a Harvard Medical School research project to study how yoga can benefit those suffering from PTSD. The study is ongoing, but early results have shown that more than half of the participants saw reduced symptoms after using yoga as a therapeutic treatment. While yoga is not a cure for PTSD in and of itself, it has already become an important part of the toolkit used to treat PTSD effectively and efficiently.
Photo: The National Guard
Do you think alternative treatments like yoga should have a role in treating veterans or other people suffering from PTSD? Join the conversation below or tweet the author at @sophbreene.
- Effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Streeter CC, Gerbarg PL, Saper RB, Ciraulo DA, Brown RP. Department of Psychiatry, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, MA. Med Hypothesis. 2012 May; 78(5):571-9.⤴
- Effectiveness of yoga therapy as a complementary treatment for major psychiatric disorders: a meta-analysis. Cabral P, Meyer HB, Ames D. Department of Psychology, California State University, Northridge, CA. Prim Care Companion CNS Disord. 2011;12(4).⤴
Comments Leave a comment
Absolutely! As clearly stated above it encourages the individual to control their thoughts and their body movements. Being in control of your body/mind becomes more and more natural as the practice continues. Yoga is a wonderful was for these men & women to take back their lives step by step. Respectfully submitted, Gail D. Freeman, MSW
I suffer from PTSD and major depressive disorder aa result of a years long abusive marriage. After finally getting out and getting the right therapy, I found yoga, with the right teacher! After 5 months of going 3 to 4 times a week I see more physical and emotional change than ever before! I feel stronger both emotionally and physically, have stopped isolating and working on feeling safe. I now swear by yoga as a way of life for me and my recovery. A huge thank you to Jennifer at People's Yoga Co-op!
On the other hand, the primary mission of the military is to get the soldier back in the field or the war zone. The primary mission for those who have completed their military time totally is to be a civilian and a worker and a family and social person. Yoga may help both, but knowing the military, they will use it to get a soldier to control natural emotions and human reactions to killing and seeing men, women and children dead or wounded, and in various pieces or burned. The military mission is to get this soldier frosty and numb as soon as possible so he/she can continue the mission of kill or be killed. For the veteran who is out, its a whole different ball game. We want them to feel the abandonement, betrayal, confusion, and anger and sadness of this abnormal human condition of these immoral wars and their part in it. Its called a Moral Wound. Only after a couple years of moving through this in therapy does this veteran start to make significant adjustment to the new self, the real self, not the patriotic illusion that the military and much of the culture has created out of fear, violence, revenge, and helplessness. I am a psychotherapist, combat veteran, and father of a son and I intimately know the corruption of the military and political leadership. Lets wake up and be careful how we see the use of "Mindfullness" kinds of pseudo Buddhist practices and Yoga practices for soldiers.