Updated: Sep 16, 2018
Physical, Emotional, and Mental Benefits for Trauma Survivors
It was almost twenty years ago when I took my first yoga class. It was at a private yoga studio in my hometown in the Midwest. There were just three students in this class so we had an opportunity to get personal attention, some help with adjustments, and time to enjoy the space and silence of the quiet studio. I fell in love with yoga and talked about it to my friends and family, encouraged everyone I knew to take a class, and found myself at the studio as often as I could fit in my week as a pregnant mother of a two year-old.
These days you can find yoga classes offered in settings beyond the yoga studio: your local gym or recreation center, schools and universities (even preschools), addiction treatment centers, hospital clinics, trauma centers, and even at churches and other religious centers. The mainstream has discovered the health benefits of yoga (physical, emotional, and mental) and it has become easier to find your way to a yoga practice. The benefits of yoga extend beyond what we tend to think of: flexibility, strength, agility, balance, and concentration. It also has shown benefits in improving sleep, decreasing stress, helping with day-to-day functioning, and feelings of well-being and hope.
Yoga also has shown benefits for survivors of trauma and is being used as an adjunct treatment for trauma, including people who have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex Trauma (sometimes referred to as C-PTSD). Trauma-informed yoga helps treat some of the common symptoms of trauma, including disconnection from the body, feeling safe in the body, and the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness. These benefits are often associated with the interoceptive awareness that can be built and strengthened through trauma-informed yoga. Interoception is the awareness of the internal state of the body, including bodily sensations such as pain, hunger, thirst, fatigue; muscular tension; and emotional states (as compared with exteroception which is perception and awareness of the external environment. Exteroception is often over-developed in survivors of trauma- think of the alert and ready quality called hypervigilance).
What is trauma? Trauma occurs when the individual’s coping mechanisms are overwhelmed. Individuals can be impacted by trauma in a variety of ways including assaults, domestic violence, serious accidents, childhood abuse, and incidents of persistent and chronic bullying. Trauma impacts us both emotionally and physically. Bessel Van der Kolk often remarks that unresolved emotional trauma creates “issues in our tissues”, which manifests as physical symptoms such as headaches/migraines, muscle tension-clenched shoulders/neck/jaw, a sunken chest, and a heavy heart. As a result, we develop body and behavioral patterns to cope with the incessant activation. Sleep may become disrupted, we develop disordered breathing patterns, and our hormones can get out of whack. On top of that, feelings of self-consciousness and shame disrupt our relationships and sense of self. Survivors of trauma frequently develop PTSD, although not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. Some individuals may experience brief distress without impairment in functioning, others may experience acute response of posttraumatic stress-related symptoms, while others may experience PTSD.
There is a growing body of research supporting the use of yoga in treating the symptoms of PTSD and other related mental health disorders (anxiety, depression). Research also supports yoga to help treat physical symptoms that often accompany PTSD (chronic pain, gastrointestinal issues, sleep disorders, stress disorders). Yoga has been found to be helpful in improving day to day functioning and sense of well-being and hope. It helps build skills to regulate physical and emotional reactions, prioritize self-care, and address the disconnection between body and mind.
What a class looks like
Trauma-informed classes are supportive and welcoming. It is usually a closed group of individuals who have experienced some traumatic incident, or multiple incidents, that has caused some disruption in the person’s day-to-day functioning. In some trauma-informed classes four key themes are emphasized: experiencing the present moment, making choices, taking effective action, and creating rhythms. These themes address the major components of complex trauma: being stuck in the past (memories, thoughts, feelings), having choice taken away, feeling powerless, and losing touch with the body and sense of self. The instructor leads the class with invitations for choice, movement, and exploration-- the important point here is “invitations” (“if you would like…”, “as you’re ready”, “I invite you to…”) rather than directions. Directions often have the effect of taking away an individual’s sense of choice and empowerment. Another important distinction from your usual yoga class is that trauma-informed classes do not provide hands-on adjustments, which is another way of creating safety and choice. This allows for students to not be caught by surprise or to feel that their sense of choice for their body is taken away, as often occurs in traumatic experience. All of these components create opportunity for empowerment, choice, and safe exploration of sensation.
If you are interested in learning more about my trauma-informed yoga and psychotherapy offerings, I would invite you to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org And, for more reading about trauma-informed yoga, check out these articles: Trauma Sensitive Yoga and Trauma-Centered Yoga Helps patients with PTSD and chronic pain.
Resources for further reading: The Body Keeps the Score: Memory and Psychobiology of Post Traumatic Stress by Bessel van der Kolk; Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper; The Complex PTSD Workbook by Arielle Schwartz; Journey Through Trauma by Gretchen Schmelzer.