Stretching, deep breathing and other mindfulness practices could help decrease PTSD symptoms among people at high risk for the condition, according to a small new study.
Past research has shown that people with post-traumatic stress disorder tend to have lower-than-normal levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher-than-normal levels of corticotropin-releasing hormone, two hormones that are important in the body's stress response. Even though too much cortisol -- in the form of chronic stress -- is bad, people who have PTSD have extremely low cortisol levels, and raising cortisol in this group of people is actually considered a good thing. The new study, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism and conducted in nurses (who are considered a high-risk group), shows that meditation and stretching could help to bring cortisol levels up in people with PTSD, as well as decrease symptoms of the condition.
"Mind-body exercise offers a low-cost approach that could be used as a complement to traditional psychotherapy or drug treatments," study researcher Sang H. Kim, Ph.D., of the National Institutes of Health, said in a statement. "These self-directed practices give PTSD patients control over their own treatment and have few side effects." Kim worked with researchers at the University of New Mexico on the study.
The study included 28 nurses, 22 of whom experienced PTSD symptoms. Half of the nurses took twice-weekly mind-body training classes for eight weeks, while the other half of the nurses did not. Researchers specifically chose to work with nurses because they are at high risk for PTSD, considering some of the stressors and trauma they are exposed to as a function of their occupation.
Researchers tested the blood levels of cortisol of the nurses, and found that those who underwent the mind-body training had increases of cortisol of 67 percent, and improvements on their PTSD symptom checklists of 41 percent. Meanwhile, those who didn't undergo the mind-body training had a 4 percent decrease in the PTSD symptom checklist, and only a 17 percent increase in blood cortisol levels.
Plus, researchers noted in the study that "the effects were maintained for [eight] weeks after the intervention. The improvement in cortisol suggested that normalization of cortisol levels may have occurred as a result of the intervention."
The U.S. military is already looking into yoga and mindfulness training as a potential therapeutic for PTSD in war veterans. But not all yoga is one-size-fits-all, HuffPost's David Wood reported:
Not all yoga helps. Some forms of yoga are used by special forces, for instance, to build muscle power and flexibility. But yoga teachers working with wounded troops have developed trauma-sensitive forms of yoga, including a technique called iRest. This adaptation uses meditation techniques in a soft and secure setting to reactivate the parasympathetic nervous system by drawing the patient's attention and consciousness inward, rather than focusing on stress and the terrors that dwell outside, said yoga teacher Robin Carnes.
Earlier this year, a study in the journal Depression and Anxiety showed that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy could help decrease the severity of PTSD symptoms among war veterans.