Trauma is endemic in our society and is a major source of chronic mental and physical health problems, that are not being addressed by our current health policies. We need to look at this growing problem holistically or risk being overwhelmed by a tidal wave of suffering.
Whether from chronic or acute illness, childhood sexual assault, domestic violence, an active career in Defence, Policing or the emergency services, bullying, an accident, violence or a witness to violence, or any sudden change, trauma leaves an individual bereft and disempowered, often incapable of living a functional life.
When a person experiences physical and/or mental trauma, their whole being is impacted, therefore their whole being needs to be rehabilitated. Frequently survivors of trauma experience mental and emotional turmoil, social isolation and inability to integrate into community, as well as any physical consequences of their trauma; severely impacting Their relationships with partners, children, workplaces and the broader community.
In addition, the parasympathetic nervous systems of survivors of trauma are trapped in fight, flight or freeze mode. The consequence is a body that is physiologically always in crisis, ready to respond in a fraction of a second.
Always in fear, the individual becomes hypervigilant and hypersensitive, leading to anger, anxiety and depression. Physiologically, chronically high levels of adrenalin and cortisol increase the risk of diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, heart disease and chronic pain.
This is beyond the scope of Western clinical practice, alone. Medication and cognitive behaviour therapy, while useful, cannot on their own manage the whole being disruption that trauma creates. Therefore, we must address this problem with a range of techniques, including tools that relax the autonomic nervous system.
Every week I work with survivors of trauma, including: childhood sexual abuse, transitioning from prison, chronic illness, grief, acute illness, drug addiction, post & antenatal depression, domestic violence and active duty. The focus of my teaching, therapy and coaching is to gently release the tension held in the tissues of their body, while switching the autonomic nervous system from alert to relax.
The tool I use is trauma-sensitive Dru yoga, which includes gentle stretching sequences, breathing, progressive relaxation, and sometimes mindfulness and meditation. My classes are not aerobic or pretzel yoga but designed to be inclusive and light-hearted, therapeutic tools of healing. Yoga therapy programmes are designed to give clients at least one tool they can use in their everyday lives, to manage their own condition.
Classes are monitored with questionaries at the beginning and end of courses, and yoga therapy clients provide feedback on their progress in each session. What I have seen consistently, across both classes and yoga therapy, is the immediate experience of relief in feeling so relaxed. This is usually followed by a few days of making better choices, being less reactive and feeling less pain or other physical symptoms.
Overtime, students, clients and carers report cumulative effects of recovery and healing. For example, one of my students began with chronic depression related to trauma and severe ankylosing spondylitis. The same student is now regularly exhibiting her artwork, has taken up sailing, been re-employed and gradually reduced all her medication for pain and depression, to zero. For this student, yoga has been the most effective treatment and she is fine if she maintains her yoga practice.
I began yoga teacher training in 2007 because meditation was the only activity that relieved the madness I experienced every day, due to many years of living in a state of crisis. Within three months of daily yoga practice, I had eased myself off the antidepressants that enable my attendance at a meditation weekend in an electric wheelchair and within twelve months I returned the electric wheelchair. Now I teach and write and speak and ski – I am in healthy relationship with the world.
And it is not just my anecdotal evidence. My Dru teacher and his colleagues were funded by the United Nations to teach yoga in war zones in Africa and Europe in the 1980s and 90s, and produced remarkable results. Additionally, an increasing body of academic research suggests modalities such as yoga, massage and tai chi delivered by experienced and qualified therapists, are effective tools in the treatment of PTSD.
We need to invite experienced and qualified professionals from complimentary, clinical and community sectors to the table, so that we can develop effective funding and management strategies and improve therapeutic outcomes. And we must scope our strategies from cradle to grave, across all social, racial and financial divides.
Our society is in crisis, and the increasing rates of chronic mental and physical illness are indicators that our traditional methods and current policies are not working. We desperately need to look beyond our own discipline, beyond what we have always done and collaborate.
Lynnette Dickinson has been delivering therapeutic yoga and meditation since 2009, and is the author of A Journey to Peace through Yoga. If you are interested in therapeutic yoga, yoga therapy, yoga for teens or trauma sensitive yoga, please contact Lynnette at www.splendouryoga.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.