Trauma survivors find relief in yoga

January 10, 2013

Quick: think about a psychologist’s office. What do you see? Probably a couch, tissue boxes and giant books with indecipherable names. But yoga mats? 

If it’s the office of UNT Health’s Mandy Jordan, PhD, you bet.

Patients who experience or witness life-threatening events, such as sexual or physical assault, war, or a serious accident, can exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These symptoms may include hypervigilance, frequent distressing memories or nightmares of the trauma, or startling easily. "This constant state of stress has a significant impact on the brain and body," Jordan said. 

Traditional talk therapies, such as exposure therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, may actually re-traumatize patients if they do not have adequate emotional coping skills, she said. "Trauma-sensitive yoga can help heal areas of the brain that were impacted by the trauma, such as the limbic system (part of the brain that activates the "fight or flight" response), and thus individuals can better regulate and tolerate their emotions, which aids the healing process."

Recent research bears out her belief. In a study published last year in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, patients with histories of trauma, who practiced trauma-sensitive yoga as part of their therapy, showed significantly more improvement in symptoms than those who just participated in group therapy sessions.

Trauma-sensitive yoga differs from traditional yoga. Bessel van der Kolk and colleagues, at The Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute, in Boston, Mass., have developed a specific type of yoga tailored for individuals who have experienced trauma. For example, participants are provided with choices on how they could move their bodies rather than being told what to do, which can remind them of their trauma. It is also gentle and slow and focuses on becoming comfortable with and connected to their bodies, and on regulating uncomfortable emotions and breathing. 

Thus far, research indicates trauma-sensitive yoga helps reduce symptoms of PTSD when used in conjunction with psychotherapy. After several sessions of trauma-sensitive yoga, clients are better able to tolerate and regulate uncomfortable emotions and physical sensations, rather than panicking or shutting down, which allows them to process the trauma during traditional talk therapy. Other areas of improvement include better decision making, maintaining presence, and gaining introspection. 

Dr. Jordan’s trauma-sensitive yoga group, for women, occurs from 3 to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays. A program for men is under consideration. To learn more, please contact Rebecca Meriwether, Clinic Supervisor for the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, at Rebecca.Meriwether@unthsc.edu or 817-735-2792.

 

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