Deep breathing, stretching and meditation show promise for PTSD

1 July, 2013

Natural Health News — A combination of meditation and stretching can help relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and normalize stress hormone levels, according to a recent study.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rates vary from country to country. According to the World Health Organization, which began collecting statistics on the disorder in the 1990s, the incidence can be as low as 0.3% of the population in China or as high as 6.1% in New Zealand. In the US More than 7 million adults nationwide (around 2% of the population) are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a typical year. In the UK rates are broadly similar.

PTSD is triggered by a traumatic event, can cause flashbacks, anxiety and other symptoms. Sufferers have high levels of corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) and unusually low levels of cortisol – two hormones used to regulate the body’s response to stress.

Although levels of the stress hormone cortisol typically rise in response to pressure, PTSD patients have abnormally low levels of cortisol and benefit when these levels increase.

The small study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism  looked at the impact of mind-body practices in nurses, whose jobs elevate their risk of PTSD.

Twenty-eight nurses from the University of New Mexico Hospital, including 22 experiencing PTSD symptoms, were divided into two groups. One group took 60-minute mind-body sessions where participants performed stretching, balancing and deep breathing exercises while focusing on awareness of their body’s movements, sensations and surroundings – a form of meditation called mindfulness. The control group did not participate in the twice-weekly class.

The predominantly female participants underwent blood tests to measure their stress hormone levels and their symptoms judged against a check-list used to diagnose PTSD.

Beneficial physiological changes

Among those who were enrolled in the mind-body course, cortisol levels in the blood rose 67% and PTSD check-list scores decreased by 41 %, indicating the individuals were displaying fewer PTSD symptoms. In comparison, the control group had a nearly 4% decline in check-list scores and a 17% increase in blood cortisol levels during the same period.

“Mind-body exercise offers a low-cost approach that could be used as a complement to traditional psychotherapy or drug treatments,” said the study’s lead author, Sang H. Kim, PhD, of the National Institutes of Health.

He added, “Participants in the mind-body intervention reported that not only did the mind-body exercises reduce the impact of stress on their daily lives, but they also slept better, felt calmer and were motivated to resume hobbies and other enjoyable activities they had dropped. This is a promising PTSD intervention worthy of further study to determine its long-term effects.”

Who is at risk?

According to the experts at the prestigious Mayo Clinic, people of all ages can have post-traumatic stress disorder. However, some factors may make you more likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic event, including:

  • Being female
  • Experiencing intense or long-lasting trauma
  • Having experienced other trauma earlier in life
  • Having other mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression
  • Lacking a good support system of family and friends
  • Having first-degree relatives with mental health problems, including PTSD
  • Having first-degree relatives with depression
  • Having been abused or neglected as a child

Women may be at increased risk of PTSD because they are more likely to experience the kinds of trauma that can trigger the condition.

Kinds of traumatic events
Post-traumatic stress disorder is especially common among those who have served in combat. It’s sometimes called “shell shock,” “battle fatigue” or “combat stress.”

The most common events leading to the development of PTSD include:

  • Combat exposure
  • Rape
  • Serious accidents
  • Childhood neglect and physical abuse
  • Sexual molestation
  • Physical attack
  • Being threatened with a weapon

But many other traumatic events also can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, including fire, natural disaster, mugging, robbery, assault, civil conflict, car accident, plane crash, torture, kidnapping, life-threatening medical diagnosis, terrorist attack and other extreme or life-threatening events.

Health impacts

PTSD, like all forms of stress, has implication for health. Previous research suggested that women who are in highly stressful jobs are 40% more likely to:

  • suffer a heart attack
  • ischemic stroke
  • require treatment for blocked arteries
  • suffer from cardiovascular disease

Additionally, greater lifetime exposure to the stress of traumatic events was associated with higher levels of inflammation in people with cardiovascular disease.

Most recently Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were more than twice as likely as those without PTSD to develop heart disease.

Some professions also increase the risk of PTSD.  Nurses, the group studied in the current trial, are known to be at high-risk of developing PTSD due to repeated exposure to extreme stressors.