It's Mental Health Awareness week here in the UK, what better time than now to open up and support each other with matters of the mind?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder aka PTSD. Commonly associated with veterans and rightly so given the levels of intense trauma they're exposed to... no human being should ever have to experience or witness what they do. More yoga less war!
PTSD in reality can impact any mind and may be triggered by a traumatic event that your mind struggles to process. Typically but not exclusively to when you are genuinely in danger or your life is threatened in some way. In my case, PTSD presented a number of months after a series of traumatic, life changing experiences.
Flashback to February 2014 Serious skiing accident;
Flashback to March 2014 Surgery which resulted in life threatening complications;
Flashback to April 2014 Woke in the night with crushing chest pain and blacked out;
Rushed into resuscitation with suspected pulmonary embolisms;
Pulmonary embolisms confirmed along with heart and lung damage;
Blood clots throughout body;
Family called as unlikely I'll make it through the night.
Forever grateful, I made it through that night and the next and the rest - apparently all thanks to my 'athletes heart', thank you heart I owe you my life!
I spent the rest of the year scheduling my time between hospital appointments, bed rest, trying to get back to work (too soon from my bed - why oh why do we do this to ourselves?!) and recover some semblance of normality.
In the August of 2014 I began to experience symptoms of PTSD for the first time. A delayed mental reaction after kidding myself into thinking I was coping by dealing purely with the physical day to day challenges. I realised by the September that I was a long way off feeling well again and struggled to deal with the daily pain in my leg. The new norm was living with permanent feelings of extreme fatigue, as my body was working hard behind the scenes to break down the blood clots along with the help of Warfarin treatment. I started losing my hair and nails (a side effect from the treatment), sleep became elusive, nightmares and flashbacks began to terrorise me on a daily basis. I was also grieving for my old life of physicality, the sports and pursuits that had anchored me throughout my life from childhood. My outlet for all of life's stresses however great or small.
While shock and denial tend to immediately follow a traumatic event (they certainly did for me) its long-term effects can include: unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships (due to anxiety, depression, and/or isolation), and a number of stress-related physical symptoms. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, founder of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Mass., and a clinical psychiatrist specialising in post-traumatic stress, calls these physical symptoms “issues in our tissues.”
The mental impact of everything that happened was in many ways more challenging to deal with than the physical. I became hyper vigilant, scared to sit or lie down for too long in case the clots came back and realistically would my heart be able to survive a similar event?! I was fearful of leaving the house, having always been an outgoing, sociable butterfly of life before. I remember one car journey on the way to meet friends with my Partner and I just freaked out. It had never happened to me before but I just couldn't go through with it. I felt unsafe all of the time and lived in fear of everything and everyone. I somehow managed to work from my bed Monday to Friday, no matter how unwell I felt, it was important to maintain this sense of routine... foolish looking back now I know. When we did attend a social occasion I put all of the little energy I had left into convincing everyone I was ok to then spend days feeling wiped out afterwards. The longer this continued the more isolated I became.
So what was the turning point? In a word... Yoga.
I realised I couldn't carry on this way and wanted to take control back of my mind, body and life. Whilst I still didn't understand what was happening to me fully or even slightly (until formal diagnosis), it was important I began to rehabilitate. I began a home yoga practice purely for the physical benefits, hoping it would help me to manage my knee injury. What I hadn't bargained for were the powerful physiological side effects that came with it. Each time I practiced, not only was I able to reconnect with my love of movement, I felt better as a whole somehow... body, mind and spirit.
My personal rehabilitation journey with yoga at the centre, inspired me to turn my back on a career in HR (massive yawn) and devote the rest of my life to working and growing as a Yoga Teacher, helping others rehabilitate themselves physically, mentally and in turn spiritually.
Yoga teaches you how to self-regulate and gain control over your body and mind once more. Asana, meditation and relaxation can reduce autonomic sympathetic activation, reduce blood pressure, muscle tension, improve hormonal activity and decrease the physical symptoms and emotional distress. You learn to reclaim your body and awaken your healing potential, while also developing a new, healthier relationship with yourself on a physical, mental and emotional level.
A dynamic yoga practice can help with depression, a slower practice can calm and soothe anxiety symptoms, and at times a silent meditation might be more effective than using spiritual language and vice versa.
The key is to find what works for you. For me, some days it was a vigorous practice, some days all I could do was lie in bed and practice Savasana.
The greatest gift yoga can offer you if you are struggling with PTSD or any prolonged period of stress, is to establish existing calmly and peacefully in the present moment without constantly living in fear.