Source: Darius Bashar UNSPLASH
Over 20 million Americans experience trauma or post-traumatic stress over their lifetime. Life-or-death situations that cause extreme anxiety, like car accidents, natural disasters, or acts of violence can all lead to post-traumatic stress. The result of this traumatic experience can be high anxiety, the inability to sleep, irritability, nightmares, flashbacks, and more. Up to 20 percent of military veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress.
Therapy is generally the first line of treatment, but it has shown limitations.
Why Therapy Doesn't Always Work
Although therapy can be helpful, supportive, and highly beneficial, it isn't a good fit for some, due to:
- Ineffectiveness: Up to 50 percent of patients don’t improve after therapy, with two-thirds retaining a post-traumatic stress diagnosis post-treatment.
- Dropout: Rates can be high (almost 40 percent for veterans).
- Dislike: Trauma is painful and many do not wish to revisit memories or discuss them.
- Stigma: The stigma of going to a therapist prevents many veterans from attending.
- Resources: The time and cost of therapy are not always accessible.
That's a lot of people.
The good news for people who do not prefer therapy or do not find it beneficial is that a breathing practice may be similarly impactful. Our preliminary research showed that veterans with post-traumatic stress experienced normalized anxiety after one week of learning a breathing technique (Sudarshan Kriya Yoga, or SKY Breath Meditation). Our colleagues at the Palo Alto Department of Veterans Affairs ran a larger follow-on study with veterans with post-traumatic stress (PTS) demonstrating that SKY Breath Meditation is, in fact, beneficial as a therapy.
- The first group (n=44) received a gold-standard therapy called Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), which has been shown to be effective in treating symptoms of post-traumatic stress. CPT is a first-line, trauma-focused therapy.
- The second group (n=41)—the experimental arm—received SKY Breath Meditation, a comprehensive set of breathing techniques that has had promising results in reducing post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety. The SKY treatment was delivered by the nonprofit Project Welcome Home Troops.
- Each group received treatment for six weeks.
- SKY Breath Meditation was just as effective as talk therapy in treating PTSD at the end of treatment, one month following treatment, and one year following treatment.
SKY Breath Meditation was also as effective as CPT in treating symptoms of depression at the end of treatment and one month after treatment ended.
In this same study comparing CPT and SKY, only SKY improved symptoms at a physiological level, as measured by Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV has been shown to be lower in people with trauma, stress, or PTSD, whereas in people without mental illness or excess stress it is higher; signaling a balanced nervous system.
Dropout rates were similar between groups, but when we looked deeper into the data, we discovered that if people attended just the first session of SKY, the dropout rate was significantly lower in SKY than in CPT. 29 percent of participants dropped out of CPT compared with only 9 percent of SKY participants of those who attended at least one treatment session. This suggests that the SKY protocol was well-tolerated by those who were open to it.
Why is this important?
Given that the gold standard therapy for post-traumatic stress, Cognitive Processing Therapy, does not work for everyone, that many people prefer not to talk about their trauma, that dropout rates are high, and that patients may feel stigma associated with therapy, there is an urgent need for effective alternatives. SKY Breath Meditation presents an alternative treatment that could be highly beneficial for people with trauma.