Yoga has a positive role to play in helping those who suffer from trauma to recover and restore themselves, physically, mentally and emotionally.
Trauma is defined as direct exposure to a violent, dangerous or threatening event or episode that overwhelms, shakes and shatters a person’s sense of security. Trauma can also lead to a sense of being alone and unable to trust others. The event may be singular or repeated, which can lead to complex trauma. The event may be an accident, conflict or natural disaster, and doesn’t necessarily involve physical harm. Trauma can also result from long-term exposure to stressful events.
How Trauma Affects Us
Trauma can leave one feeling vulnerable, alone, disconnected from self and others, suppressing emotions and memories, feeling frightened or angry, and unable to trust others. Trauma can be felt in the body, leaving physical memories that can be automatically triggered by particular sounds, memories, smells, tastes or images. Traumatized people then try to disconnect from their bodies to protect themselves from the fight-or-flight response. If trauma is not therapeutically addressed, physical illnesses can set in, as well as emotional and cognitive difficulties.
Recovering from Trauma
Experience and studies indicate that support networks, positive relationships, a sense of belonging, healthy interests and activities outside of work, and spirituality or belief in self and others, are all contributing factors in helping people recover from stress and trauma, and in building resiliency.
How Yoga Helps with Trauma
Yoga provides a safe and calming environment in which individuals can release the tension from their bodies, re-connect with themselves, learn to trust their bodies’ reactions, and build their capacity to cope through mindfulness, focus and breathing. Yoga can also be modified to meet the physical and emotional difficulties that often accompany stress and trauma, while still challenging individuals to improve their overall health and well-being. Finally, the practice of yoga in groups contributes to support networks, positive relationships, and a sense of belonging.
Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma
Human services professionals are required to identify and respond to the needs of others intensively on a daily basis. Such workers are known to be susceptible to secondary forms of trauma, which are commonly known as compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma. This condition is characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time. It is common among the professionals who work directly with trauma victims, such as nurses, social workers, psychologists, and first responders.
Workers suffering from secondary forms of trauma exhibit several symptoms including a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, a sense of hopelessness, and a pervasive negative attitude. Physical problems (including headaches and tension in the shoulders, lower back and hips) can also result. Professional consequences include a decrease in productivity, inability to focus, and feelings of incompetence and ineffectiveness.
Left unattended, secondary trauma may continue to erode the individual’s well-being through loss of hope, compassion for others and themselves, and a pessimistic and negative mind-set. The toll of helping others can become overwhelming, and the afflicted worker may start to feel helpless, angry, hopeless or ambivalent towards the very individuals he or she is mandated to serve. Secondary trauma can be compounded by increased professional demands and workloads, decreasing agency resources, lack of management support, and insufficient time for debriefing after providing trauma-related services or witnessing traumatic events.
Yoga can significantly contribute to helping workers suffering from compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma to recover and restore themselves, personally and professionally.
Research on Addressing Trauma with Yoga
The last decade has seen various journals and other publications addressing the health benefits of yoga. Yoga is a mind-body practice that is known to restore health and wellness by alleviating symptoms, improving function and developing resiliency. Yoga enables individuals suffering from trauma to connect with their breath and body, which allows them to release tension and develop self-calm. Medical research has demonstrated that yoga has a positive effect on heart rate variability.
Yoga has rapidly become accepted as an effective treatment modality for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic occupational injuries, and workplace stress, sometimes in conjunction with therapeutic treatment and/or peer support networks.
The publications listed below are a small sampling of available resources on yoga as a treatment modality for trauma:
• Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Emerson and Hopper, 2011
• Yoga Therapy in Practice: Emerson, Shama, Chaudhry and Turner (iayt.metapress.com)
• Depression, Research and Treatment: Review article by Telles, Singh, Balkrishna, Vol 2012, article id. 401513. Hindawi.com
• Healing Life’s Trauma: Denise Wills, yogajournal.com/health/2532
Some good information on the research about yoga as a treatment modality for trauma and PTSD:
• Yoga Warriors http://www.yogawarriors.com
• Trauma-Sensitive Yoga: Principles, Practice, and Research
International Journal of Yoga Therapy Volume 19, Number 1 / 2009
• Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming your body. Emerson and Hopper. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley California. 2011
• Depression Research and Treatment
Volume 2012 (2012), Article ID 401513, 9 pages
• Review Article: Managing Mental Health Disorders Resulting from Trauma through Yoga: A Review, Shirley Telles, Nilkamal Singh, and Acharya Balkrishna
Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 1071, Psychobiology of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Decade of Progress pages 277–293, July 2006 by Bessel A. van der Kolk MD.