Post Traumatic Stress Disorder results from a wide variety of horrific experiences.

Memories are Physiological

Our imagination allows us to go beyond remembering past events and to actually re-experience them. In fact, vivid memories are commonly associated with the same physiological changes we experienced during the original event; this is why vivid pleasant memories are so welcome. Likewise, vivid disturbing memories can sometimes make us feel just as bad as we did when we went through the original experience, and we quite naturally go to great lengths to avoid them.

Pushing Memories Away Makes Them Stronger

Unfortunately, here we run into the great paradox that accompanies all forms of experiential avoidance: trying to suppress unpleasant memories strengthens them and increases their damaging effects. The antidote to re-experiencing the unpleasant memory is not to attempt to shut it out; the antidote is to invite it in and explore it—not by analyzing it, but rather by allowing ourselves to learn that the feelings associated with the memory are survivable and can serve to make us stronger.

Memories and Health

When memories of traumatic events, such as witnessing or being the target of violence, intrude into our minds on a regular basis, our psychophysiological responses can ruin our health. Unfortunately, a large segment of the population suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The original event can be a war experience, a gang-related experience, rape, ritual abuse, any type of child abuse, or a traumatic car accident. The antidote to PTSD always includes learning to be present with the traumatic memory rather than avoid it and to recognize that the content of our imaginations is not the same as present-moment reality. This takes time and is best accomplished by working with someone who has extensive professional experience with PTSD.

Healthy Practices Are Not Always Healthy

Some forms of meditation and other activities that are generally considered healthy, such as yoga, tai chi, or other physical disciplines, when practiced in order to avoid unpleasant thoughts, images, emotions, or sensations, limit our ability to live a full and rich life. While we may gain some health benefits by engaging in such practices, if what moves us to practice is the desire to escape the fullness of our experience, those practices can have harmful effects. And there is another down side: According to psychologist Dr. Lance McCracken, when we engage in favorite activities as a way to avoid experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the activity is usually not as joyful or satisfying as it would be otherwise.

3 replies
  1. Gianna
    Gianna says:

    unless one is not being mindful when engaging in yoga or tai chi I can’t imagine how it can do anything but bring one into the physiology of the traumatized body and thus be healing to body/mind/spirit…

    Can you please be a bit more clear about how people might use yoga or tai chi to escape?

    I suppose if one is in a class and only concerned about competing with everyone around them or something like that it could work that way…

    but hatha yoga really isn’t yoga unless it’s accompanied with deep mindfulness which can only bring one into being…yoga and meditation both has been totally important in facing the pain of PTSD in my life…

    I’m sure what you’re saying has a greater context but it would be helpful if you could be explicit about it.

    • Larry Berkelhammer
      Larry Berkelhammer says:

      Gianna,
      Your hypotheses as to how yoga, t’ai chi, or any other practice could be used to escape actually includes my answer to your question. I began TM and hatha yoga in 1972, Soto Zen in 78, vipassana, t’ai Chi, and other internal martial arts in the early 80s. However, I am sad and ashamed to admit it, but it took me decades before I was able to finally get beyond my focus on the end goal of mastering all these practices. Eventually, after some very painful lessons from various exceptional teachers, I finally began to get it that there is no place to get to, that my attachment to becoming a master had actually prevented me from achieving my goals. I had been paradoxically using all those practices in attempts to escape the pain in my life. I had been running toward something exotic rather than tuning in my thoughts, emotions, and sensations. After 40 years of practice, I have not mastered any of them. However, I am now happier than I ever was when I was striving. I am now reaping wonderful rewards from practice. The difference is that now I practice for the moment-to-moment experience.

    • Gianna
      Gianna says:

      thanks very much for your answer…that was very helpful and touching both. I appreciate your willingness to share personal details.

      I do yoga in my home by myself and my body is my only teacher…(I’m mostly homebound at this time)

      in any case, for me it’s a profoundly personal thing and no one sees me nor do I care one bit about form or how I look…it’s been a wondrous healing thing…I love yoga…so much…and sometimes it hurts as it helps me understand how everything is held in my body…

      it’s fascinating and wondrous how we all come to these things in different ways. I really appreciate this blog…thanks again.

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