Faced with the highest army suicide rates in at least 30 years, U.S. military officials are examining ways to help treat psychologically wounded soldiers. A study published in the March issue of the journal Injury Prevention found the number of U.S. military suicides rose by 80 percent from 2004 to 2008. The increased risk of suicide is linked to combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan and mental health problems like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that may occur after exposure to a traumatic event such as military combat, violence or a natural calamity. Research reports that yoga practice can help relieve PTSD symptoms like psychological distress, anxiety and sadness. According to the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, approximately 18.5 percent of returning soldiers from Iraq or Afghanistan have PTSD.
Now the U.S. military is turning to yoga to help manage combat stress and decrease the risk of PTSD and suicide.
Yoga Reduces Combat Stress
A small 2012 study published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy found yoga reduced symptoms of combat stress and PTSD. The study was conducted among U.S. active duty military personnel deployed in Iraq.
U.S. researchers administered nine sessions of the "Yoga Warrior method" to 35 U.S. air force and army personnel for three weeks, and this group was compared to another group of 35 personnel who did not receive any therapy. Tests assessing emotional responses and daily journals were obtained from the participants.
The Yoga Warrior method, developed by yoga and occupational therapists, includes hatha yoga and sensory-based occupational therapy techniques.
The researchers found the yoga group had significantly greater improvement in mental health and quality of life than the control group. Furthermore, the yoga participants reported sleep improvement, increased feelings of calm, and reduced anger.
"The results support using sensory-enhanced hatha yoga for proactive combat stress management," the study authors conclude.
Yoga Nidra Helps Soldiers
A very small pilot study conducted at Walter Reed Army Medical Center reports that yoga nidra relieved PTSD symptoms in soldiers returning home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Researchers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., administered 18 sessions of the Integrative Restoration (iREST) program to seven Iraq and Afghanistan war vets with PTSD for 12 weeks. Tests assessing emotional responses and daily journals were obtained from the participants. The study participants continued to receive the treatment they traditionally received for PTSD for the duration of the study.
The Integrative Restoration (iREST) program was created by Dr. Richard Miller, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the International Association of Yoga Therapists and the Institute for Spirituality and Psychology. Yoga nidra, also known as yogic sleep, is a meditative practice that brings calmness and deep relaxation.
The researchers found that PTSD symptoms including anxiety decreased and feelings of being in control increased among the participants.
"As a result of these findings, Walter Reed Health Deployment Clinical Center has integrated Yoga Nidra protocol (now called 'Integrative Restoration, or iRest) into its treatment program for soldiers rotating through the Clinical Center," the study authors write. "Soldiers receive 12 iRest sessions during their three-week rotation through the clinic."
Yoga Programs for Vets
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Elaine Gavalas is an exercise physiologist, yoga therapist, weight management specialist, nutritionist and healthy recipe developer.