PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people after a traumatic event. It was once known as “shell shock” after World War I. Then later called “combat fatigue” after World War II. But PTSD is not only experienced by soldiers.
PTSD can occur after any terrible or life-threatening event, whether the event happened to you directly, you witnessed it, it happened to someone very close to you, or you were a first responder at the event. These events could include war, a natural disaster, an act of violence, sexual assault, child abuse, a serious accident, isolation, or any other violent assault.
Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:
Symptoms of avoidance may include:
Symptoms of negative changes in thinking and mood may include:
Symptoms of changes in physical and emotional reactions (also called arousal symptoms) may include:
During a traumatic experience, the brain’s alarm system called the amygdala is activated which in turn “shuts down” the rest of the brain. The hippocampus, which is responsible for categorizing memories in an organized way, goes offline. This causes traumatic memories to come up scattered, disorganized, incomplete, and not timestamped.
People often cannot remember key parts of their trauma, the timeline of events can become confusing, and memories of the traumatic experience can often show up in intrusive, fragmented, and unwanted ways.
When these memories show up, it can cause both emotional and physical distress. They can also feel as if they are happening in the moment rather than in the past because of their lack of a timestamp or cohesive timeline.
While we tend to think of PTSD as primarily a disorder affecting veterans, this disorder can affect a wide variety of people. It is not limited to those who have seen combat. PTSD occurs in all people – regardless of ethnicity, nationality, gender, or age. The disorder is estimated to affect approximately 3.5% of U.S. adults. An estimated one in 11
people will be diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lifetime. Interestingly, women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with PTSD.
How we process trauma is affected by our relationships and whether we receive isolation or support.
Our basic understanding of the autonomic nervous system or ANS is that it includes two parts: the sympathetic, and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic is often called the “fight or flight” or “fight, flight, freeze” response. While the parasympathetic is considered the “feed and breed” or “rest, digest, and heal” response.
Polyvagal theory explains that the ANS is regulated by the vagus nerve. This nerve is associated with the parasympathetic, or healing side of the ANS. The theory however further explains that the parasympathetic nervous system actually has two sides to it: one side is the healing side we are already familiar with, while the other side has its own defense mechanism.
To summarize the way this works, when a threat is perceived:
“It turns out that the parasympathetic nervous system is not only associated with relaxation but is also implicated with symptoms of PTSD. Stephen Porges introduced the polyvagal theory as a means to help us understand this dual function of the parasympathetic nervous system. His work reveals an evolutionary older survival mechanism in which the parasympathetic nervous system leads us to immobilize or “faint” in the face of a life-threatening event. Most importantly, the polyvagal theory teaches you to engage your social nervous system to consciously inhibit your defensive system. This allows you to finally find freedom from trauma symptoms and experience a deeply nourishing sense of safety here and now.”Dr. Arielle Schwartz
“Yoga became a major cornerstone in our understanding that it is imperative to befriend one`s bodily sensations in order to overcome the imprint of trauma.”Bessel Van der Kolk
PTSD symptoms are based in biology and experienced somatically. When traumatic memories come up, PTSD sufferers are re-experiencing the traumatic event. Their fear and pain are very real. When they experience a trigger, or their brain senses danger, it can be challenging to differentiate between the past and present. Polyvagal theory indicates that engaging with and strengthening the social nervous system can pave the way for healing.
Mindful awareness of bodily sensations such as breath, heart rate, or engaging muscles can help build a healthy social nervous system. Yoga’s emphasis on breath and awareness does just this. Breathing with Ujjayi breath is also said to stimulate the vagus nerve.
Both yoga and mindfulness meditation give people tools to self regulate so that they can build resiliency.