The field of mental health is as diverse and complex as the problems that are therein examined and treated. Researchers and doctors alike strive to provide the best results for those who suffer from disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD is characterized by “hyper-arousal” a state of agitated arousal where the individual experiences a state of anxiety coupled with overreaction to events. Within the disorder there exists a wide spectrum of those who experience some, but not all of the characteristics of PTSD. Because of the diverse symptom clusters, an individualized approach can better serve the one receiving treatment.
In cases where individuals develop PTSD, traumatic events occurring over time can cause changes in the brain and in the body, affecting the autonomic nervous system. The ANS regulates subconscious activities such as heart rate, breathing, pupillary dilation, digestion, and others.
A study recently done at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that certain yogic breathing techniques can help alleviate the vexing symptoms of PTSD.
The results of the study mark a step forward in gaining control of these usually uncontrolled functions.
The CIHM was started in 2009, and has since conducted scientific research about mental health and spread a message of mindfulness and self-betterment. Their mission is to relieve suffering and promote well-being, and its major activities are split into three main areas. The first is basic research in the lab. This is a preliminary stage, and allows for the researchers to focus in on a more refined subject for later stages.
The second area of activity is translational research and involves a more deliberate attempt to functionally apply knowledge gained from the first stage. Application of results is the goal of this part of the process at the CIHM, and connects to the final area of activity for the center: dissemination of understanding.
This communication effort is the most important step, as it spreads the benefit of crucial knowledge to the network of professionals and sufferers of PTSD who need to be reached out to the most. The founder of the CIHM, Richard J. Davidson, emphasizes the importance of self-involvement in the treatment process of mental betterment. “Well-being is a skill. It can be learned,” Davidson said.
One method of self-regulation involves a paced schedule of breath control exercises and meditation. This method of interval breathing, Sudarshan Kriya Yoga, acts against “hyper-arousal.” The breathing activities along with various meditation techniques were integral to the training for participants. This, along with group sessions for several hours a day help to establish a social format in which those with questions or concerns can voice their minds and find common ground with others.
The participants in the study experienced relieved symptoms. Of the 21 participants, the 11 soldiers who received the treatment showed reduced signs of PTSD compared to the 10 in the control group. Symptoms such as respiration, heart rate and eye blink magnitude are indicators of arousal, and were measured to gather data about the effectiveness of this technique.
With such a small sample size, it is difficult to draw any broad conclusions. However, the results of this study can be strengthened by further examination of techniques like Sudarshan Kriya Yoga. These results present an alternative to drug treatment, and ongoing research suggests that these methods do have merit.
The series of studies that encompasses this and other research are part of an effort on the part of the CIHM to refine contemporary mental health treatment techniques. Results like these can strengthen the approach that we take to bettering mental health, and allow for mental health professionals to deal with disorders like PTSD that present themselves in a variety of ways.
Student involvement plays a role in the daily activity of the CIHM and the Waisman Center. More than 60 undergraduate students are part of the work that goes on there for the betterment of mental health and development. With the continued effort of students like this as well as researchers in the field of mental health, the long-term goal of the CIHM may yet be achieved. It hopes to determine to a greater degree who benefits from which style of treatment and further individualize the approach to mental health.
This individualization is key to unlocking the secrets of disorders like PTSD, and Professor Davidson indicated that persisting benefits would only accompany persistent effort.
For those that experience the negative effects of lasting mental trauma, the road ahead seems long but hopeful. With continued effort on the part of scientists like those at the Waisman Center, knowledge of aid techniques will only grow.