Yoga Trumps Talk Therapy for Healing PTSD from Military Sexual Trauma

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Decades after assaults, military sexual trauma continues tormenting survivors. Alternative treatments like yoga provide new hope for healing deep wounds conventional therapy cannot reach

A new 12-month study of military veterans found a specially-designed yoga program reduced PTSD symptoms as much as the frontline PTSD psychotherapy, but with fewer dropouts. The embodied yoga approach could expand options for recovering from trauma related to military sexual assault.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports military sexual trauma (MST) in 38% of female veterans, driving increased PTSD disability claims.1 First-line VA therapies like cognitive processing therapy (CPT) are trauma-focused, meaning they directly process memories and stuck points around the abuse. But half of treatment completers retain a PTSD diagnosis after CPT, while many more withdraw early or decline therapy outright due to discomfort discussing events.2

Seeking alternatives, researchers tested trauma-sensitive yoga against CPT group therapy in a year-long trial with 131 female veterans diagnosed with MST-related PTSD.3 The tailored yoga centered on body awareness, choice-making, and shared experiences--without revisiting specifics of participants' attacks. Over 12 weekly sessions, both interventions significantly reduced PTSD assessed through interviews and questionnaires. But while 46% dropped out of CPT, nearly two-thirds completed the yoga course.

Sometimes talk therapies can seem irrelevant or retraumatizing for sexual assault survivors. In contrast, bottom-up somatic practices help regulate the sympathetic nervous system and related anxiety without getting trapped in trauma narratives. Feelings of safety and control during gentle movement may ease trauma stored in the body and mind. An embodied treatment lens could make PTSD recovery more accessible, especially when confronting painful memories head-on feels unbearable.

An extensive research database on GreenMedInfo.com contains over 400 human and animal studies on yoga for conditions ranging from pain syndromes to cancer, showing yoga's versatile therapeutic potential.4 Though more investigation is needed, the military trial adds to growing evidence that replacing or augmenting conventional modalities with appropriate yoga or mindfulness could benefit both VA clinics and civilian trauma victims. By acknowledging the complex roots of suffering, integrative healing provides hope to those nearing the end of their rope.


References

1. Laurie C. Wilson, "The Prevalence of Military Sexual Trauma: A Meta-Analysis," Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 19, no. 5 (October 2018): 584-597, https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838016683459.

2. Matthew M. Steenkamp et al., "First-Line Psychotherapies for Military-Related PTSD," JAMA 323, no. 7 (February 18, 2020): 656–657, https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2019.20825.

3. Belle Zaccari et al., "Yoga vs Cognitive Processing Therapy for Military Sexual Trauma–Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Clinical Trial," JAMA Network Open 7, no. 2 (February 2024), https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.44862.

4. GreenMedInfo, "Yoga Research," accessed February 27, 2023, https://greenmedinfo.com/therapeutic-action/yoga.

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