A new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers hope for those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Researchers there have demonstrated that a breathing-based meditation practice known as Sudarshan Kriya Yoga can be a useful treatment for PTSD.
According to a 2012 report by RAND Corp, more than 20 percent of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder. People with PTSD suffer from heightened anxiety, intrusive and unpleasant memories, and personality changes.
By: Freddie Peña
The most common trait of the disorder is hyperarousal. Defined as overreacting to innocuous stimuli, hyperarousal is often described as feeling jumpy, on edge, or easily startled and relentlessly on guard.
Hyperarousal is only one facet of the autonomic nervous system, the complex system that regulates the beating of the heart, breathing and other body functions, as well as controls one’s ability to respond to his or her environment. Scientists think hyperarousal is at the centre of PTSD and the driving force behind some of its symptoms.
The results for traditional treatment interventions for PTSD are mixed. Some individuals are prescribed antidepressants and do well while others do not; others are treated with psychotherapy and still experience residual effects.
Sudarshan Kriya Yoga
Kriyā is a Sanskrit term, derived from the Sanskrit root, kri, meaning “to do”. Kriyā means “action, deed, effort”.
Sudarshan Kriya works on mental,physical and spiritual levels. Scientifically, Sudarshan Kriya improves antioxidant status at the enzyme and the gene level and reduce DNA damage and cell aging. 1
The Sudarshan Kriya Yoga practice is one of controlled breathing which directly affects the autonomic nervous system. Although the practice has proven effective in balancing the autonomic nervous system and reducing symptoms of PTSD in tsunami survivors, it has not been well understood until now.
The research team was focused on Sudarshan Yoga because of its emphasis on manipulating the breath, and how that in turn may have consequences for the autonomic nervous system and specifically, hyperarousal. Thisis the first randomized, controlled, longitudinal study to show that the practice of controlled breathing can benefit people with PTSD.2
“This was a preliminary attempt to begin to gather some information on whether this practice of yogic breathing actually reduces symptoms of PTSD,” says study author Richard J. Davidson. “Secondly, we wanted to find out whether the reduction in symptoms was associated with biological measures that may be important in hyperarousal.”
Tests included measuring eye-blink startle magnitude and respiration rates in response to stimuli such as a noise burst in the laboratory.
Respiration, of course, is one of the functions controlled by the autonomic nervous system. The eye-blink startle rate is an involuntary response that can be used to measure one component of hyperarousal.
These two measurements reflect aspects of mental health because they affect how an individual regulates emotion.
The study involved 21 soldiers: an active group of 11 and a control group of 10. Those who received the one-week training in yogic breathing showed lower anxiety, reduced respiration rates and fewer PTSD symptoms.
“A clinician could use a ‘tool box’ of psychological assessments to determine the cognitive and emotional style of the patient, and thereby determine a treatment that would be most effective for that individual,” Davidson says. “Right now, a large fraction of individuals who are given any one type of therapy are not improving on that therapy. The only way we can improve that is if we determine which kinds of people will benefit most from different types of treatments.”
Davidson would like to further the research by including more participants, with the end goal of enabling physicians to prescribe treatment based on the cognitive and emotional style of the individual patient.