UW Researchers Study Yoga As Treatment For PTSD

A new treatment program for post-traumatic stress disorder that does not involve drugs or traditional therapy is under way at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Some veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan are finding relief through yoga.

Some returning veterans who suffer from PTSD can’t turn off the sounds and sights of war, which flood their minds.

“PTSD is the past hijacking your mind and impeding you life in the present moment,” Dr. Emma Seppala said.

Symptoms of PTSD include intrusive thoughts, hyper-vigilance and emotional numbness, symptoms which sometimes go unnoticed.

“I didn’t think anything was wrong,” said Travis Leanna, 25, who served with the Marines in Iraq for six months.

He was never diagnosed with PTSD, but something wasn’t right, and Leanna said he didn’t even know it.

“If you would have told me I had a problem, I would have laughed at you. I didn’t think anything was wrong,” he said.

Traditional treatment of PTSD includes antidepressant drugs and exposure therapy.

“(Exposure therapy) is a therapy in which you remember and recount the traumatic event so much so that the idea is it doesn’t have an impact anymore. However, that’s a very difficult thing to do, very challenging,” Seppala said.

Only 50 percent of the vets who undergo the traditional therapies are cured, according to Seppala, and she thought there had to be a better way.

Researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center on the UW-Madison campus have turned to the ancient practices of yoga and breathing.

For the past year, in a weeklong regimen, veterans came to the center to learn yoga and breathing to help them deal with problems some didn’t even know they had.

Rich Low served as an infantry officer in the Army in Iraq, leading some 280 combat missions.

“I didn’t think I suffered post-traumatic stress,” Low said. “Meditating and breathing was something I didn’t consider, and I was surprised that when I came out on the other side, I found the desire to just be active and involved with life again. Coming back from Iraq, I was suppressing a lot of things and just living day to day.”

Low said he didn’t think his time in Iraq affected him in any major way, but he said the class changed his life.

“I went through several failed relationships, and I was wondering what was going on, why I wasn’t connecting,” he said. “I did the course and things starting opening up. I started to feel happiness, sadness, emotions I couldn’t even explain because I wasn’t familiar with them. It was a little jarring at first; I didn’t know how to handle them, but overall it’s been a great experience.”

Now, researchers such as Seppala are crunching the numbers, trying to determine if the yoga therapy will stick. A year into the study, they said the answer seems to be yes.

Phase two of the study is about to begin. Richard Davidson, the founder and chairman of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, said he is encouraged by the initial findings but that there is more to learn.

“One of the key things we need to determine is who is best impacted by this of kind intervention, and for which individuals will it be less effective. And with a larger sample size, that’s a question we hope we’ll be able to shed some light on,” Davidson said.

For more information on the program, and to learn more about how to participate in the study, people can visit www.investigatinghealthyminds.org. The next round of classes begins in March.