The greatest overlooked news story today, is that the suicide rate among veterans is an astounding 22 veterans per day every day.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or P.T.S.D. is a huge part of this heartbreaking crisis. This deadly disorder has symptoms ranging from insomnia, depression, anxiety, panic and startle responses to triggers. This disorder brings a life of chaos and suffering for veterans and their families, with no end in sight. However, yoga is effective in treating these symptoms through poses and breath control. These techniques are easy to learn and do not need too much time. When practiced daily, they relax the body and quiet the mind.
The body tightens when tense. Especially the jaw, the neck, the shoulders and the back. Tension in the physical body reinforces a tense mind. If these key areas become relaxed, it is an important step in reducing the escalation of stress. When physical relaxation is combined with slow breathing, the fight/flight response is interrupted. When the trigger is experienced, in a relaxed and calm way, the reaction is not as intense.
The jaw can be relaxed by gently placing the knuckles of each hand on the joint between the upper and lower jaw. Make a loose fist and slowly rotate the knuckles on the face close to the ears. Keep the jaw unhinged by placing the tongue on the roof of the mouth or softly chant “aaaahhhhh.”
Tight shoulders encourage a tense mind. Shoulder shrugs will relax the body and quiet the mind. Raise both shoulders toward the ears as you inhale and lower the shoulders as you exhale. You can add shoulder circles, both forward and back. Recognize that tight shoulders is a sign from your physical body that tension is building up and this tension can be derailed by relaxing the shoulders. Also, a very relaxing pose is to lift the right arm over your head, bend the elbow and lower the lower arm across the top of your head. Then gently pull the elbow with the opposite hand. Always repeat each movement, equally to the other side.
A tight neck is another early warning sign of stress. Place your fingertips on the back of your head by the base of the skull. This entire area is composed of connective tissue that is often overworked and contracted. Vigorously massage this area with your fingertips — focus on the neck and the back of the skull for one to two minutes. Then move your fingers to the large muscle in front of the neck, called the C.S.M. This muscle starts by your ear and runs down towards the collarbone. When you turn your head, the muscle becomes prominent. Cross your hands at your wrists and stroke both sides of your CSM at the same time. Gently rub upwards and downward 10 to 20 times. Your neck will feel much more relaxed.
So you have relaxed the jaw, the shoulders, the neck and now focus your attention on your back. While standing tall, gently swing your arms, move your hips and twist your spine from above your belly button, in the motion of a corkscrew. Gentle twisting relaxes and releases the back muscles.
Yoga’s standing poses create a connection, through the feet, to the earth. This is a grounding movement and it creates stability. Added to the connection of the feet to the earth is the connection of the core and the pelvic floor. Poses such as mountain, triangle and bridge are easy to learn, but highly effective poses. The idea is to counteract the cycle of stress with physical relaxation, mental alertness and intelligence. This approach has been shown clinically and through personal experience to diminish the severity and duration stress responses.
Breathe control is known in yoga terminology as pranayama. The typical approach in yoga is to “let go.” However, this method is useless in the treatment of P.T.S.D. because the flashbacks and triggers are not the same as those emotional hurts that burden our lives. What breathe control does is to create a habit of calm breathing as a substitute for shallow and rapid breathing. The deep and slow breathing alerts the parasympathetic nervous system to slow down the heart rate which interrupts the fight/flight response. The painful memory reappears, but with a relaxed body and quiet mind. Almost like a miracle, the body and mind processes the trauma in a more healthy way. The level of the response is less severe, it lasts for less time and disturbing responses to triggers start to happen less often. Breathe control is being aware of your breath and consciously manipulating it.
Deep breathing involves drawing the belly inward on the exhale for a count of four and expanding the lower abdomen and ribs for a count of 4 on the inhale. Just breathe, slowly, deeply and evenly. A transition to a long exhale enhances relaxation and a feeling of contentment. A simple practice is to blow on your thumb. Take your time, exhaling as you gently blow on your thumb. It really is calming. There are several, easy to learn and simple to practice pranayama methods, but conscious slow breathing is the heart of the practice.
There is hope for the sufferers of P.T.S.D. and their families. Yoga helps. I will teach these techniques to any veteran or volunteer of fire and rescue squads, which are in a high risk of the effects of P.T.S.T., free of charge. I feel indebted by the sacrifice of these brave warriors.
Maria Bowers is a certified yoga and tai chi teacher. Classes are available on Saturday mornings at the Art Center in Troy. I will answer all inquiries at [email protected]