Saturday, September 17, 2011

PTSD and Yoga

I have to admit that every time I've begun to write this blog I got stuck.  I was mentally hitting the pause button.  I have PTSD.  I can usually talk about it openly but there is something about writing the words that feel so raw, real and exposed that I just kept getting a brain freeze.  I initially had fear about the a stigma of "mental disorder".  But PTSD is the mind's way of reacting to unusual trauma.  It begun at an early age and it took many years to get diagnosed, but with  a diagnoses came the use of tools to help me better cope with all that living with PTSD has wrought.  PTSD doesn't go away.  I've used cognitive therapy, yoga, and meditation as tools to help me manage the symptoms.  

Yesterday in a yoga class a teacher gave a pretty good definition of what happens to me when I am triggered by something.  She said "the story that's on rerun in your head...." When something triggers my fight or flight response that situations become my story on rerun (or broken record).  Or rather how that situation made me feel becomes my constant rerun.  Whatever my emotions were at the time are a response to the trigger but it doesn't mean that my actual emotions/feelings about the situation are based on reality.  A wise woman once told me "feelings don't make it fact".  Just to give an example, let's say my best friend called me to cancel our plans to go up north for the weekend, that could illicit a trigger in me to feel abandoned.  My best friend didn't do anything wrong.  She just had to change our plans based on something else happening in her life.  Well in my head the story on rerun would be abandonment and feeling alone because when she called that's where I went to emotionally.  Now through the practice of observing my own mind (through years of meditation and introspection) I have become much better at seeing these triggers.  I know now from whence they come and now it is easier to talk myself down from that fight or flight ledge.  This example is a very simple, one that I'm sure has be experienced by people without PTSD.  However, it illicits a pretty over the top emotional response of anger (that the person could do this), fear (that they are truly abandoning me), and hurt (that I am all alone), which in turn makes me isolate and "run away" from that person.  Which in its own way is self sabotage because running away only ensures the self fulfilling prophecy of being alone.  And it is this that causes the thing that I fear the most to actually happen, being alone. 

Usually one who has PTSD already feels isolated and alone, as if no one truly understands what they are feeling.  It's pretty hard to put it in words, but until you learn how to shut that rerunning story off, there is no way to see through the emotional tornado that PTSD brings up.

Stilling the mental waves
I learned to meditate many years ago.  And while there are many different meditation techniques, just sitting still trying to quite the mind has never worked for me.  I needed a technique that would lead me there. I needed something to focus my mind on until it would begin to calm the storm of restless thoughts.   I learned some very useful meditation techniques through Self-Realization Fellowships teachings, they offer a home study course in meditation and pranayama unlike anything I had heretofore practiced. Not only did the meditation give me room to calm the mind, the use of daily introspection helped me to go back and review what was actually going on in my mind that caused me to react the way that I did.  The mind is very reactionary and someone with PTSD is even more reactionary than someone with out it, so tools like this are invaluable.  While practicing these things are helping, it is no easy feat.  You have to be willing to look at your own thought processes, see how they are negatively impacting your life and be willing to acknowledge them and do something about them.  Positive change comes with much time, practice and patience.  It takes dedication to your own healing and growth to keep at it.  PTSD doesn't go away.  But with vigilant observance  you will be able to see the triggers with clarity and stop them in their tracks before they send you into fight or flight.  Meditation has certainly be very useful to me on this front.

How does yoga help?
Survivors of sexual abuse who suffer from PTSD may find that they have disassociated from their bodies physically and emotionally. In my own experience the way that I was able to cope with the trauma as it was happening was to "leave my body", by going into a catatonic like state.   When I was in the midst of having a flash back, I felt like I had absolutely no control over my body, breath, or emotions.  I was reliving that trauma all over again 20+ years later as if it were happening at that very moment.

Yoga asanas taught me awareness of the body and mind.  It has helped me to be fully aware of my body of  being in the room and using  my breath to create awareness.  What that means for me is that there is a pause between the moments that I feel something and the time it takes me to react to it.  This is the exact opposite from how PTSD would trigger a response from me. 

Through the practice of yoga I am allowing myself to observe how my body feels in each posture. 
 Is there a tightness in my lower back?  Am I tensing muscles that I could relax in that particular posture?  Is my jaw clinched?  Is  my face relaxed?  While all of these things seem simple, most of us go through out our day not noticing all of these "little things" that are going on in our bodies.  By practicing yoga you initially become aware of what your body is feeling, and in time with practice you become aware of the emotions that can come along with these bodily feelings.  

A few weeks ago I was in kapotanasa (pigeon) and found myself feeling angry.  I noticed that not only were my hips tight, but so was my jaw.  My jaw was actually clinched shut.  With this new found awareness I was able to release my clinched jaw.  I acknowledge the anger I was feeling and where it was coming from. In that moment I observed that my emotions had a direct effect on my body.   I learned to be still, and truly observe what was happening in the body and mind and honored those feelings, in that way I  allowed myself to move through it.  It is common for us to push through pain or just "get over it" but with yoga the awareness gets carried over into all aspects of your life.  Yoga, when truly practiced, is a science of the mind and so much more than just physical exercises.  

Now when I feel an emotion while I am practicing (on or off the mat), I observe it (more often than not), to see where it arises from.  I acknowledge it's existence, allow myself to relax the tension it has brought up and allow it to pass of it's own accord without mental force.  I let it be until it dissipates on it's own.  I am living proof that with time and persistent practice, yoga can be a useful tool for one who suffers from PTSD. 

This is yoga on and off the mat.



  1. I thank you for your blog. I just wanted to tell you thank you & that you are not alone when it comes to PTSD. I haven't been able to bring myself to share my trauma or explain what PTSD is to my family or friends. Because i cant explain one without explaining the other to the people that love me. So thank you for your courage.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Ellyn. My fiance also copes with PTSD. I will link this entry to him, as I know it will help. Much love and hugs !

    Psst! This is Jayne :)

  3. Thank you all. If this can be of help to just one person it is well worth the effort.

  4. What an awesome story &very powerful.