In Australia, approximately 12 out of 100 people will have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their life. With PTSD affecting anybody who has been through traumatic events, including a serious accident, natural disasters or assault, war veterans are inevitably at higher risk for PTSD than the general population.

PTSD has a significant effect on brain function - increased reactivity in the amygdala (the ‘fear centre’ of the brain) demonstrates that the nervous system of those living with PTSD has become significantly dysregulated. Sufferers lose their capacity for a functioning ‘fight or flight’ response and can be stuck perpetually in one mode or the other. They are in constant high-alert, which manifests as a perpetual state of stress and panic - the world feels unsafe, unpredictable and uncontrollable.

In recent years, a large number of studies have found that a consistent yoga practice has particularly positive effects for veterans, including improving key symptoms of PTSD such as stress, anxiety and depression.

What is yoga?

Yoga uses a combination of philosophy and practice, with the goal of creating unity between the mind, body and spirit. Its approach focuses on the complex nature of human existence and works with breath, mindfulness, relaxation and physical exercise to integrate the various aspects of what makes us human.  

The practice of yoga manifests in precise and deliberate routines and poses, that increase range of movement and activate joints, tendons, and muscles. The breathing and physical practice increases oxygen intake, improves circulation and stimulates a healthy flow of the right kind of body chemistry, for optimal brain and body function. The mindfulness and relaxation aspects focus more on the psychology of being human – recognising what things are within and outside of your control, or applying a different approach to how you respond to stimuli – something that for PTSD sufferers can be extremely challenging. 

How does it help?

Yoga has been reported to have a significant impact on the mental health of those who practice it regularly. Key benefits of yoga that directly impact on symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Increased oxygenation of body tissues through deep focused breathing

  • Focused attention and rhythmic breathing as a method of control where fight/flight reactions are concerned

  • Management of complex and overwhelming thought processes through mindfulness and relaxation exercises

  • Deepened mind-body connection, alleviating the residual experience of trauma and building resilience

  • Increased blood flow, oxygenation and general resilience for rebuilding the nervous system to create more regulated patterns of activity in the brain

Yoga as a community

Of course, professional medical advice should always be the first step taken, however, activities like yoga provide a good alternative for those who for whatever reasons, medication may not offer solutions. Along with being a great complementary and non-invasive therapy to support your recommended treatment plan, attendance at a suitable local yoga class is an opportunity to be part of a local community group with a shared goal – health and wellbeing. A great example of one such group is Blind Tiger in Melbourne – a yoga class designed specifically for veterans and emergency service workers. With shared experiences of stress and trauma, the group offers a supportive space for the therapeutic activity of yoga to take place.

If you are experiencing any of the feelings or symptoms mentioned in this article, contact your GP for a consultation. You can also call us at Carry on Victoria on 03 9629 2648 for advice on what to do next. The number for Lifeline is 13 11 14 and more information about mental health is available at Beyond Blue.