Mind-Body Practices and Post-Traumatic Stress

Mind-body practices can be highly effective in reducing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in military personnel, survivors of war and other mass disasters, and victims of abuse. These practices can be used to develop greater stress resilience.

Veterans, Military Personnel, and Civilian Survivors of War

Military deployment and exposure to combat entail increased risks for mental health problems, including depression, PTSD, substance abuse, impaired social functioning, and difficulty reintegrating after returning home. Studies suggest that as many as one-fourth of the service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are experiencing some level of psychological injury, which may or may not yet be visible. Lessons from previous wars – World Wars I & II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Bosnia and Desert Storm, indicate that when left untreated, these injuries can stretch into long-term disability. Many veterans who have received standard treatments – including medication, individual and group therapy, cognitive behavior therapy and others – are left with symptoms of chronic PTSD. Many individuals, including medical staff returning from combat zones, do not seek care because of shame or fear that disclosure would adversely affect their military career.

Complementary and alternative treatments can be of benefit to veterans and military personnel. Mind body practices can relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD. Multi-modal programs that include yoga postures, breath practices, relaxation techniques, group processes, and psycho education on stress reduction are particularly beneficial.

In PTSD, the stress response system is out of balance: the sympathetic branch is over-active and the parasympathetic branch is underactive. Specific breathing practices can quiet the sympathetic branch and, at the same time, activate the parasympathetic branch. This is critically important because the parasympathetic system calms down the stress response system, reduces emotional over-activity, and provides soothing, healing, anti-inflammatory effects for the mind and the body.

Survivors of Mass Disaster

In conditions of mass disaster, the physical needs of survivors for food, water, shelter and medical care must be met first. The psychological needs must also be addressed to relieve immediate suffering and to prevent long-term consequences such as chronic PTSD and impairment in interpersonal relationships and employment. Mind-body practices can provide a relatively low-cost, low-risk means to relieve PTSD in large populations affected by mass disaster in situations where health care systems may be overwhelmed and or ineffective.

Victims of Emotional, Physical and Sexual Abuse

Nowhere is the link between mind and body more evident than in the experience of abuse. This connection gives us a unique opportunity to employ body-centered methods to heal emotional scars. While talk-based and cognitive therapies can be of great benefit, there are situations in which mind-body approaches, such as yoga, Qigong, Tai Chi, breathing practices and meditation can be extremely beneficial and sometimes necessary for full recovery.

Victims of abuse, especially children, are often unable to talk about what happened either because they are too young to have words to describe the experience or because the perpetrator has frightened them into permanent silence. Mind-body practices provide a therapeutic approach using the body’s own internal communication network – a system that does not require words. Learning how to use the body to speak to the mind circumvents the prohibition against talking and can be more effective than relying solely on verbal, cognitive or intellectual approaches.

Adapted from: How to Use Herbs, Nutrients and Yoga in Mental Health
Richard P. Brown, MD, Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD, and Philip R. Muskin, MD
W.W. Norton & Company (2009)

Chapter 14 Mind-Body Practices for Recovery from Sexual Trauma
Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD and Richard P. Brown, MD
in Surviving Sexual Violence
A Guide to Recovery and Empowerment

Edited by Thema Bryant-Davis
Rowan & Littlefield, Inc., 2011, pp. 199-216

Trauma and the Breath

Dr. Patricia Gerbarg defines trauma and its consequences. She describes the power of simple breathing techniques, as complementary therapies to balance the autonomic nervous system, re-establish energy levels and a foster a peaceful mind.


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