Everyone has pleasant or unpleasant experiences in life that impact our mind and body. In what passes for a relatively normal existence today, more and more people are experiencing stress related disorders. The more disturbing the events are, the stronger their impressions are on us. Can we possibly comprehend the condition of people who have high impact experiences, suffer trauma or repeated trauma, or survive under highly stressful situations? And to what extent do these strong impressions have an effect on the human being?
One of the conditions of great suffering is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is the name given to the severe condition that develops after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic events. Symptoms common to this condition are recurring flashbacks, avoiding thoughts or people associated with the traumatic event, or numbing of memories of the event, and hyperarousal (high levels of anxiety). On a body level, headaches, muscle tension and pain, chest pain, fatigue, changes in sex drive, upset stomach, sleep problems and urinary disorders are experienced. Psychologically, nightmares, restlessness, anxiety, lack of motivation or focus, irritability or anger and depression are common to this condition. Manifestations behaviourally are tendency to over or under eat, abuse of drugs and alcohol and social withdrawal.
Events involving death, serious injury, threat to self or others, where intense fear horror or powerlessness is experienced causes such symptoms. People at high risk are victims of natural disasters; survivors of torture or violent crime, those employed in occupations which expose them to violence i.e. soldiers or emergency workers facing disasters. Children can develop PTSD by being bullied or mobbed. At the heart of PTSD is the fight or flight response. This response is a reaction that prepares the body to fight or flee from perceived threat. Our sight sharpens, awareness intensifies, our impulses quicken and our perception of pain diminishes. In intense situations and repeated traumatic situations, this flight or fight response is not countered properly. The body mind complex remains in a heightened state of stimulation and cannot relax from the strong impressions of the experience. The same phenomenon occurs to more or less a degree to all of us in our life but PTSD is deeply damaging and confusing with usually long term dysfunctional effects.
Yoga offers a unique and ancient system to manage the mind and emotions.
There are several principles that yoga has to offer which help unravel the mysteries of our experiences and their impact.
According to the ancient knowledge of yoga, one of the main stressors on our nervous system is the movement of the mind between the past and the future. Simply by sitting and observing our thoughts we can see this principle in action - we are either going over past events or considering what the future might bring. This phenomenon is intensified in the case of PTSD and considering the compounded effects that follow, it becomes a complicated and sensitive disorder with uniquely personal manifestations.
Thinking of past events brings feelings of remorse, anger, frustration and guilt whereas thoughts of the future bring anxiety. Of course there are positive past experiences but the tendency of the mind is to hang on to negative thoughts and experiences.
Also our perception is coloured by our experiences and there are five aspects to perception:
- Comprehension: Understanding based on direct experience or reliable sources.
- Misunderstanding: When logic fails and incorrect information dominates, we are unable to understand in depth what we see. This often occurs as a result of past experiences and conditioning.
- Fantasy: Joyful or pleasurable fantasy or baseless fears, imaginings - leading in extreme cases to paranoia.
- Sleep: When the mind is not in any of the first three states.
- Memory: All conscious experiences leave an impression on the individual and are stored as memories. It is not possible to tell if a memory is true, false, incomplete or imaginary.
Knowledge of yoga can help relieve us, direct us and give clarity of mind. It is the ultimate self-help. But first we need to calm the mind, calm the system.
The first step in yoga practice is to link the mind and body through the breath, bringing awareness to what is happening in the moment. Intense feelings and thoughts can be experienced and reduced in intensity as the mind becomes more still and calm and the body allows the sensations to pass. An experience of a deeper level of existence is possible allowing the body mind complex to feel peace and generate positive emotions and enter a transformative period. With repeated practice and guidance, a yoga practice can bring long term relief and a fresh perspective on life for PTSD sufferers.