How Trauma-Informed Yoga Regulates the Nervous System
Though trauma can be a debilitating experience that affects our physical, spiritual and mental health, trauma-informed yoga makes it possible to regulate some of the emotional charges associated with traumatic memories. But what is trauma-informed yoga? What are its benefits?
Personally, yoga has been a true lifesaver for me when it comes to trauma. I hop on my mat if I’m sad, angry, stressed, overwhelmed, feeling destructive urges, or anything really. It has helped me process and accept my diagnosis of BPD, as well as regulate my distressing symptoms and trauma responses.
I put together this guide to give you a little more insight to trauma-informed yoga and how it could benefit you if you’ve experienced trauma and are looking for a new tool to cope.
Why is Yoga Important For Complex Trauma Survivors?
Research on yoga’s benefits to people living with trauma-related conditions is growing exponentially. Yoga researchers are finding that practicing yoga has positive effects on people living with numerous trauma-related conditions. Studies also show that properly administered yoga can help heal unresolved trauma stored in the body.
Yoga does this by helping to regulate the nervous system. The nervous system is composed of two primary states – an aroused, anxious state (sympathetic nervous system) and a relaxed, calm state (parasympathetic nervous system.)
When we are in danger or facing other perceived stressors, our sympathetic nervous system takes over. This is commonly referred to as the “fight-or-flight” response. When we are at rest and there is no perceived threat, our parasympathetic nervous system takes over; this is commonly referred to as the “rest-and-digest” response.
People living with trauma often suffer from having a hyper-aroused (sympathetic) nervous system and they benefit most from yoga that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.
Yoga’s soothing effects work to regulate and calm over-aroused nerves by stimulating the release of calming chemicals in the body such as serotonin and GABA.
Yoga also stimulates neuroplasticity (the ability of neurons to change) which leads to changes in brain chemistry that create a lasting state of calmness.
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Yoga and cPTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)
People dealing with cPTSD may have experienced trauma as years of ongoing stress, exposure to potential threats, childhood abuse or other repeated, complex and traumatic situations. This differs from PTSD, which is usually defined by just one key traumatic event, or short period of time.
This affects the learned autonomic nervous system and can cause a stress response in a variety of ways, sometimes replaying internal experiences of the traumatic events without the actual traumatic memories replaying. This can result in a constant misfiring of the fight or flight system, without knowing what triggered it.
This is where trauma-informed yoga comes in. It can help you gain a sense of control, or acceptance, over your body and mind through practicing yoga, bringing you back into the present moment to practice different ways of coping.
This helps those with cPTSD find grounding, as well as self-regulation tools, which were potentially not provided by their childhood environment or traumatic experiences.
Yoga and Borderline Personality Disorder
BPD is often another psychological trauma-related disorder. BPD is a complex disorder that affects how you perceive and express yourself, as well as your perceptions of and relationships with others. It can result in unstable self-image, relationships and poor emotional regulation, impulsive behavior, negative thinking patterns and behaviours, and cognitive distortions.
One of the key symptoms of BPD is intense emotional mood swings, during which the mind can enter a state of extreme agony, dissociation or impulsiveness. This can be an exhausting and traumatic experience in itself, as it is often childhood wounds and complex trauma responses that triggered the reaction.
Yoga has been a lifesaver for me with my mental health and BPD, it helps me regulate extreme mood swings, impulsivity, dissociation, and so much more. Yoga has been a tool to help manage those symptoms so I can find a sense of calmness and control over my life again, even when things feel intensely bad.
Read More: Living With Borderline Personality Disorder
Building a Trauma Sensitive Yoga Practice
The first step in building a trauma-sensitive yoga practice is learning how to practice your physical body awareness. This means being aware of your body, noticing the physical sensations that are happening in the present moment, rather than focusing on past or future experiences.
It can be hard to do this when you have experienced childhood trauma, neglect or abuse, where there was no one taking care of your needs as a child, or you may have been taught to ignore them. You might have learned that your feelings don’t matter and should just be ignored or punished.
In these cases, it can be hard to choose to connect with those feelings and your body in the present moment. However, yoga offers a safe space for you to explore these sensations and emotions while simultaneously calming your parasympathetic nervous system. This helps you self-soothe and self-regulate both the mind and body which further assists in trauma recovery.
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Being aware of your emotions and how they affect you can help ensure that you stay present in the moment and manage challenging or traumatic external stimuli.
Different yoga practices offer different perspectives to explore, such as mindfulness and meditation. These provide a safe space for you to check-in with yourself and see how you’re feeling, before reacting or responding to your feelings.
You can then use these tools to help you make more informed decisions about how to act in the present moment, which is extremely helpful for when trauma responses kick in.
Feeling joy during your yoga practice can help you cultivate a greater sense of self-love and self-compassion, even if there are other unpleasant feelings involved with your practice. Don’t be hard on yourself when practicing yoga initially, just allow yourself the time and space to find that stillness and presence in the body.
You may feel emotional as you practice, but yoga provides a safe space to explore the negative beliefs that may have been reinforced by your childhood experiences as they come up. The more aware you become of your emotions and how they affect you, the easier it will be for you to experience them without your nervous system firing up constantly.
By developing the mind-body connection that yoga offers, trauma survivors can better protect their mental health and understand how to cope with an unwanted stress response.
The breath brings you to the present moment. It is the center of your nervous system and can help you get out of fight-or-flight mode. It’s not an easy task at first, but with practice, it gets easier to become aware of the present moment upon inhaling and exhaling.
Different types of yoga practices focus on different aspects of breath awareness. For example, kundalini yoga, which focuses on an energy system within the body, incorporates breath awareness as a way to focus inward and control the flow of energy.
The yogic breathing technique known as pranayama focuses on inhaling and exhaling with certain ratios to help you calm your nervous system. This slower pace of breathing can help lower heart rate and blood pressure, as well as promote feelings of relaxation. Breathing exercises also provide a safe place to explore the sensations within your body.
Being present in the moment with yourself and your breath is an essential part of yoga practice and can be used as a tool for becoming more aware of your emotions and body sensations.
When you feel centered and grounded, it’s easier to tune into your emotions and become aware of the childhood memories that perpetuate them. Trauma is difficult to digest, but yoga can provide a safe space for you to work through these experiences that may have been stored away in your body.
By focusing on breath awareness and being present in your body, you can begin to unpack what happened in your past and create the foundation for healthier coping mechanisms.
Self-Soothing With Trauma-Informed Yoga
When you’re experiencing difficult emotions, it can be helpful to find a way of soothing yourself that doesn’t involve drinking alcohol or watching TV while eating unhealthy foods. These are comforting distractions but they won’t solve the underlying issue or help you be your best self. You deserve a deeper, more intimate form of comfort from within.
Yoga provides many healthy ways to care for yourself and treat yourself with love and compassion. There are various poses that can calm your nervous system as well as provide a safe space to explore emotions you may have been avoiding.
As you practice, focus on your breath and find out what kinds of sensations are arising within your body. Do you feel muscles shaking? Is there heaviness in certain parts of your body? All of these are opportunities to extend kindness toward yourself through acceptance of sensation.
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Working With a Trauma-Informed Yoga Teacher
Attending a trauma-informed yoga class or even better, yoga therapy, could be a great step when overcoming trauma. Trauma-sensitive yoga teachers have the expertise and key knowledge to offer us this insight into our trauma through key physical practices and meditations.
Though I work with trauma-informed yoga for my own at-home daily practices, I would love to look into yoga therapy in the future and am wide open to any suggestions. Let me know below if you have any!
I’d just like to end this by highlighting that I am in no way a mental health or medical professional. This piece is strictly opinion and written from my own personal experiences. This should not be taken as medical advice. You should not replace this with seeking a medical professional to support your trauma recovery.