how yoga helps heal in trauma recovery
Speaking from personal experience of her own journey as well as delving into the science of polyvagal theory, Jasmine explores how yoga can play a key role in healing PTSD.
Trauma is complex and affects everyone differently. A big part of the after-effects of trauma can be feeling disconnected from the body. Understanding the nervous system’s response to trauma helped me to understand my own experience of it. I find that Yoga offers a profound way of reconnecting with and reclaiming my body after trauma and understanding the science behind it has been eye-opening.Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has a lasting effect on the nervous system.
It is where a traumatic event triggers the nervous system to remain in a reactive state. A person with PTSD has a nervous system that is stuck in reactive mode and wired to detect a potential threat, remaining switched on high alert.
It can also make a person dissociate completely and feel “numbed out” or not really “there.” This can make the sufferer switch between feeling hyper-aroused in a state of fear and anxiety and under aroused in a state of dissociation and fatigue. This is to do with the fight/flight/freeze response, which I will explain in more detail later. For me to be able to downregulate my nervous system to restore balance, I had to learn how to self-soothe. My chosen path for this journey has been through Yoga practices.
Healing works in cycles. As far as my experience has taught me, there is no endpoint of being “fixed.” There are cycles of moving away from the original wound/trauma and sometimes being jolted back there. Yet as time goes on, I move further and further away from the wound for more extended periods, and each time it does resurface, I feel more and more equipped to deal with it. Over time I have become more and more resilient.
Some of the issues I personally dealt with related to PTSD have been sleeping paralysis, panic attacks, depression, anxiety, flashbacks, and dissociation/depersonalization. I’d like to share a little bit about how I came to be at a place where I can self-soothe and manage all of the above. It begins with an understanding of the nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) consists of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is responsible for the reactive fight or flight response and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), responsible for the calming rest and digest response. Our nervous system regulates the balance between the two, and in the case of those with PTSD, the SNS is “stuck on” from the traumatic event. We need the SNS, it’s an essential part of life, e.g., to stay alert cycling on busy roads. But when it is overactive, it can be very problematic. Porges’ polyvagal theory offers science to shape our understanding of how our nervous systems respond to a threat and to trauma by expanding our knowledge of the ANS.
Porges outlines a hierarchical system called social engagement strategies, and he emphasizes that another response to a life-threatening situation, after fight/flight can be freeze. This is where the system becomes so overwhelmed by the threat that instead of activating the SNS fight or flight response, it shuts down completely. Many people who have experienced this “freeze” response, particularly in cases of sexual assault, can feel full of shame for “not doing more” to stop the traumatic event. Still, polyvagal theory shows that to freeze is a physiological response to the threat which a person has no conscious control over.
The polyvagal theory highlights the role of the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the visceral organs. Porges investigates the relationship between the distinct branches of the vagus nerve, ventral, and dorsal. The dorsal vagus has an emergency brake, which is responsible for shutting down the whole system into a state of freeze; this can include things like being speechless, fainting, and dissociating. The ventral vagus nerve connects to the muscles of the face and is involved in social engagement, which simply means how we relate socially. It can help us to come out of the dorsal vagus shutdown. One way of doing this is by connecting to another human with laughter and play!
We can access and affect specific changes in our nervous system to heal from trauma by downregulating the nervous system from its over-reactive state and by shifting into our social engagement systems to feel more present in the body and able to relate to others. My Yoga practice has helped me to do just this, to learn that I have the capacity to self-soothe and be present in my own body, promoting a sense of overall calm.
Many aspects of Yoga practice, from gentle breathing exercises to meditation or specific asana (posture) practice to Yoga Nidra (Yogic Sleep), all help the body to relax into the parasympathetic rest and digest mode, inviting calm into the mind as well as the body. Everyone can benefit from this, especially because many people (without PTSD) find themselves frequently triggered into the SNS fight or flight response from the general stress of fast-paced modern life.
I want to be careful not to frame SNS as “bad” and PNS as “good” because it’s not so simple. We need both systems to survive and self-regulate. The problems faced in PTSD are specific to an imbalance between the two and the SNS being in overdrive. Sympathetic arousal being constant is not sustainable and can lead to things like adrenal fatigue.
With this in mind, Yoga is not just about always down-regulating the nervous system to tap into our body’s natural rest and digest response. It can also be about playing the edge of SNS engagement in a controlled environment to then bring everything back down again. More vigorous dynamic practices of Yoga postures/sequences can activate the SNS, but followed by restorative poses, this activation can lead to deeper relaxation than practicing relaxation on its own.
So, Yoga can actually activate both responses of the nervous system and help the body to relax into the parasympathetic (PNS). An example of this is Savasana, one of the most crucial Yoga postures. Savasana is the posture where you lie down on your back and consciously relax the body, done at the end of the practice.
What’s more, specific Yoga postures can activate the SNS while Yoga trains you to keep the breath steady, and the mind calmly focused throughout. So to be able to remain calm when the body feels somewhat stressed, holding a handstand or chair pose or plank, for example, teaches resilience and offers a way to manage stress off the mat too. This can demonstrate to the body a safe way of being in SNS, followed by restoring balance by triggering the PNS in postures such as savasana.
Years of practicing Yoga has to lead me to where I am now. I am full of gratitude and appreciation for this healing journey which ultimately, has helped me to feel safer and more at home in my own skin. It took a lot of time, commitment to daily practices, and a willingness to delve into the darkness of trauma to get here to where I am now. I can say it was 100% worth it, and if I have to do it all again, I will.