How to Use Yoga as a Coping Tool when You Live with PTSD

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There are countless reasons yoga has had a drastic increase in worldwide popularity over the last couple of decades, but at the top of the list is undoubtedly its multiple physical and mental health benefits. Some of these include:

  • Improved muscular strength and flexibility
  • Better cardiovascular health
  • Increased lung capacity
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Short- and long-term stress reduction
  • Decreased levels of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders

While these perks can have powerful effects on any individual’s overall well-being, they can be especially instrumental in enhancing the lives of those living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, there are many additional ways yoga can help improve the lives of those with PTSD and make their most troubling symptoms more manageable. Here is how to use yoga as a coping tool when you’re living with PTSD.

Focus on the Present Moment

Because flashbacks and nightmares are common for individuals with PTSD, those that suffer from this mental health condition often have a difficult time removing themselves from the past. One of the wonderful benefits of yoga is that it teaches us to pay more attention to only the current moment, whether we’re focusing on holding a pose, regulating our breath, or relaxing a tensed muscle. This type of mindfulness can be extremely helpful for people with PTSD by providing a natural coping tool in times of stress, which can possibly prevent reliving moments of trauma.

Pay Attention to Your Breathwork

If you’ve worked with a mental health professional to treat your PTSD, they’ve probably discussed the benefits of taking deep breaths in times of stress. Steady, mindful breathing is an important part of any yoga session, so if you haven’t mastered the art of taking cleansing inhales and exhales, a regular practice may help you learn. You’ll then be able to use these breathing techniques to help ease stress in everyday life, including when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed with PTSD symptoms.

Learn About Your Mind-Body Connection

Yoga is an exercise that helps practitioners understand their mind-body connection in ways many other physical activities don’t. This is largely due to the emphasis on breathwork, the length of time you mindfully hold the poses, and the focus it takes to move from one pose to the next. For those with PTSD, the benefits of recognizing how your mind and body work together are enormous. Use yoga as an opportunity to learn details that may help you cope with your symptoms, such as:

  • How does your body react when you start feeling anxious? Knowing the physical signs that a PTSD episode may be on the horizon can alert you to use your set of coping tools before you suffer a panic attack.
  • How does your breathing change in times of stress? If you tend to hyperventilate or hold your breath when anxiety starts to set in, taking a few deep breaths can help put you at ease.
  • Are there physical movements that help you relax when you feel overwhelmed? If there are specific yoga poses, breathing exercises, or stretching techniques that help you feel more centered, utilizing them during times of stress will provide you some relief.

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Pair Your Practice with Meditation

In addition to yoga, meditation is a powerful tool for building mindfulness skills, so pairing them together can provide huge mental health benefits. The goal of meditation is to clear your mind as much as possible, which takes a lot of practice, so it may be helpful to start with guided exercises. YouTube is a great place to find them, and there are also a variety of apps that offer guided meditations no matter your goals or the time of day you want to practice them (as soon as you wake up or when you’re getting ready for bed, for example).

After your yoga session, consider tacking on a five- to 10-minute meditation. Once you’ve gotten more comfortable with it, you can try longer standalone sessions of about 20 minutes. Many PTSD survivors enjoy setting aside a few minutes in the morning to establish a positive tone for the day, in the evenings as part of their pre-bedtime relaxation routine, and/or any time they start to feel overwhelmed.

Set a Small Goal for Each Practice

Many PTSD survivors find that they have to take baby steps when it comes to regaining control of their lives and their mental health. Each small step you take is meaningful, so apply this same principle to your yoga practice by setting a small but reachable goal every time you hit the mat. It can be something as simple as holding a pose for a few seconds longer that you were able to during your last session or as challenging as conquering a new feat. While giving yourself larger goals from time to time is a great way to keep your yoga practice fresh, remember that the point is to feel you’ve made a victory with every single session, so don’t set yourself up for a letdown by being overly ambitious.

Make It a Workout

Yoga is often thought of as a way to relax, but there are a lot of great ways to make it a heart-pumping workout. Since exercise is an effective way to boost your short-term mood and long-term mental health, yoga practices that aim to build your physical strength and flexibility are highly beneficial for those with PTSD. In addition to gentle routines, like those that are designed to help you wind down before bedtime, add some dynamic practices to your routine. Power yoga is a great way to build muscle, while hot yoga is an effective addition to your cardio routine. 

Make Time to Stretch

Yoga is highly regarded for increasing flexibility, thanks to its various postures that encourage gentle and gradual stretching. Still, it’s a good idea to set aside a few minutes before and after your practice to stretch. Not only will this improve your yoga abilities, it’s a natural way to reduce stress by easing muscle tension and improving blood flow to your vital organs, including your brain.

If muscle tension is a symptom of your PTSD, stretching becomes even more important. In addition to stretching the muscles you use during your yoga practice (including your legs, arms, and core), also take some time to stretch the areas that feel tight in your daily life. We tend to carry stress in our necks, shoulders, and feet, so those are great muscles to target. As a bonus, stretching naturally lowers your heart rate, so doing a few flexibility-focused yoga postures or other stretches when you start feeling panicked may help reduce your anxiety.

Find a Community

Group therapy is a helpful tool for many people with PTSD. Not only does it give you a place to discuss your experience, it can help you feel less alone having conversations with others who understand and empathize with your PTSD triggers and symptoms. That same sense of community can be applied to yoga by including your friends or fellow survivors in your practice, or you can participate in on-site and virtual classes to turn it into a more social experience. This can be an incredibly helpful step for those who have difficulty leaving their homes or socializing with others: because yoga is a “solo sport,” you can ease into engaging with others without isolating yourself.

Choose the Right Setting

If you’re early in your recovery journey or simply not ready to engage with others, it may be best to keep your practice at home until you feel comfortable sharing it with others. However, it’s important to customize your home-based practice environment so it’s tailored to your unique needs. YouTube is a great resource for streaming free yoga classes, but you should look for courses that play music that puts you at ease (soft, gentle, instrumental tunes are usually a safe option for all practitioners) and that are led by instructors who don’t speak at a volume that overwhelms you or look like an individual who triggers you. 

You may also find it therapeutic to take your yoga practice outdoors. Nature has profound benefits on humans’ mental health, which may be compounded when paired with a meditative yoga practice.

Yoga is a customizable exercise that can be adapted to all mental and physical fitness levels. If you live with PTSD, starting a regular practice can have incredible benefits during and after your time on the mat, especially if you utilize the above strategies and continue working with your mental healthcare team.