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Anxiety, Depression, PTSD

Yoga is part of an ancient system meant precisely to address human suffering—and particularly to address it in the body, where it lives. Yoga can be a particularly healing intervention for those suffering from anxiety or depression and those tormented by the unhealed effects of trauma.

Anxiety: 
  • Yogic breathing can bring an anxiety attack under control, and can lessen non specific on-going anxiety. Learning to breathe more deeply and fully, using the complete diaphragm, creates a sense of calm.
  • awareness of thought patterns enable one to notice when anxiety is rising, and intervene with breathing techniques and simple movements
  •  a sense of gratitude and hope is created as one practices new ways of thinking
Depression
  • Empowering postures affect the way we think and feel.  
  • Connecting with ourselves and others in class in a positive, loving way enhances our mood and self-worth
  • Relaxing postures reduce cortisol levels (stress hormone), resulting in shift in mood away from deprerssion
Trauma (PTSD)
  • Yoga intervenes directly in the body's difficult state of hyper-arousal (from PTSD) and begins to turn it down
  • Postures empower students and breathing techniques allow them to self-regulate their mood
  • A sense of saftey in their bodies is re-created;  healing occurs
  • Yoga breathing and chanting engage the  parasympathetic nervous system, slowing heart rate, breath, and pulse; lowering body temperature; and deactivating the limbic brain (where the memory of the trauma is stored). Practicing yoga with attention to breath and sensation, we are whispering soothing messages to the overstimulated limbic brain.

Note  for therapists on trauma:
Over the past ten years some of America's leading trauma experts have begun to employ yoga in the treatment of trauma. The Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living is now involved in some of the first sophisticated research into the effects of yoga on trauma. Yoga helps with depression on all levels, biologically, emotionally, physically and spiritually.  Studies show that after just one class, levels of the stress hormone, cortisol fall, and how, over time, levels of gaba (a calming neurotransmitter), Brain derived neurotrophic factor (involved in fostering the growth of new neurons), and oxytocin (the hormone associated with bonding) all rise.

When we’ve experienced a traumatic event, the emotional center of the brain, known as the limbic region, goes on overdrive. The fight-or-flight hormone cortisol floods the limbic brain, so that we are prepared to act. Other systems of the body shut down . As a result, our memory of the trauma may be fragmented and incoherent. We often do not have linear memory of the event. A trigger can occur when  a piece of the trauma memory arises, setting us into a tailspin of hormones that overstimulate the little amygdala at the center of the limbic brain, and we may overreact to the new stimulus as though it were the original. So how does yoga help? Let’s look at the science first. Numerous studies haves hown that yoga has a direct impact on lowering cortisol (the stress hormone triggered in fight or flight). Yoga also helps decrease the frequency of intrusive thoughts and severity of hyperarousal . Yoga gives skills one can use at home to manage PTSD.  Yoga empowers students and help them to self-regulate. And most vital, in my opinion,is that yoga teaches us all that no matter what our trauma history has been or what mood state may currently be visiting, ultimately we are more than our mood and our story.

Gentle forward-bending postures focusing on breath and sensation and incorporating cooling, calming mantras to help with sleep and general limbic deactivation.  Current research shows that yoga increases heart rate variability,  which is an indication of the body-mind’s ability to flow with ease between sympathetic nervous system activation and parasympathetic nervous system activation. This physiological ability is crucial to our wellbeing. When we suffer from the effects of trauma, we are often stuck in sympathetic activation, or hyperarousal, and we overreact to life’s challenges. Many students with a history of trauma will tell you that they are living from the neck up-for them it can be frightening when they feel too much body sensation. So to keep from feeling, trauma survivors find ways to numb out through food, drugs, sex, alcohol, gambling, work—whatever it takes—and they are at serious risk for addiction.

Gabor Maté, MD, the author of In the Realm of  the Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addictionsis a psychiatrist who has spent his career treating people with addiction problems. He says he has never treated an addict who didn’t have a history of trauma. When you as a yoga professional move slowly and gently while cueing to sensation, you are offering your numbed-out, hypervigilant students a small window into feeling, first the body, and then, as the window opens wider, the emotions. This window into the body-centered moment can facilitate a “reoccupation” of the body as a safe place. This can be yoga’s greatest gift to a trauma survivor.

The growing body of evidence that yoga can be an effective intervention for mood disorders and trauma means that students with mood issues and trauma histories are being referred by their health professionals and are showing up in larger numbers in regular yoga classes. In specialty training programs, yoga and mental health professionals can learn simple practices, appropriate in both yoga  and in clinical settings, that empower their students and clients to manage their moods. 

References
1. Van der Kolk, B. A. (2006). Clinical implications of neuroscience research in PTSD. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1071, 277–293.
2. Weintraub, A. (2012). Yoga Skills for Therapists: Effective Practices for Mood Management. New York: W. W. Norton, 83–86.
3. Weintraub, A. LifeForce Chakra Calming Meditation.
4. Bernardi, L., Sleight, P., Bandinelli, G., Cencetti, S., Fattorini, L., Wdowczyc_Szulc, J., & Lagi, A. (2001). Effect of rosary prayer and yoga mantras on autonomiautonomic cardiovascular rhythms: comparative study. British Medical Journal, 323, 1446–1449

Amy Weintraub E-RYT, MFA ,LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute which trains yoga and health professionals internationally.

reccommended reading and websites: 

Article by Amy Weintraub in Yoga Therapy Today Winter 2012  
Overcoming Trauma through Yoga,  by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper
Yoga for Depression  and  Yoga Skills for Therapists. by Amy Weintraub

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Holley Ryan,
Feb 3, 2013, 4:45 PM
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