How Yoga Can Help Manage Pain and Trauma

Content Warning: This piece discusses sexual assault, violence and suicide. Readers who are sensitive to these topics should be advised that this piece may be distressing.

Rebecca Kase is a 40-year-old who resides in Fox Island, Washington, and works as a clinical social worker. She is a survivor of sexual assault and has endured additional trauma in recent years. She credits yoga with her recovery from the most difficult experiences of her life.

Courtesy Kate Schwindt

Kase was sexually assaulted in college and spent years navigating therapy and utilizing tools she learned from yoga to overcome the traumatic experience. Through that process, Kase was also empowered to deal with a shock she experienced in 2017, when she witnessed her father being abusive and violent before eventually committing suicide prior to his prison sentencing date. Kase had been very close to her father, and the experience tore her family apart. She says that she transformed the most painful experience of her life into her life’s purpose.

Kase believes yoga and the therapy tools from her experience with sexual assault prepared her for the violent and heartbreaking encounter with her father. “As heartbreaking and jaw-dropping as that experience was, it felt very clear to me that I had been in training to pick up on this,” Kase says. “My senses picked up on, ‘Something is off in this room.’ I knew what to do. Between my own sexual assault history and what I learned through that, it felt very much like this was supposed to be me.”

Quality Therapy and Yoga Help With Trauma

Only three months after Kase was sexually assaulted in college, she needed surgery to remove one of her ovaries because she developed cysts. She got pneumonia, experienced isolation and became depressed. Her initial experience with therapy left her feeling further victimized.

“I found a lot of psychotherapy to just not be very helpful,” Kase says. “I was told that it was probably my fault. (That the sexual assault) was probably because I had been drinking. And I went to a therapist after that, and she just glazed over it. So I just shut down inside and harbored that in my body.”

Kase eventually found a therapist that validated her and helped her heal. She also enrolled in yoga training, where she surrounded herself with a supportive community and studied philosophy, meditation and breathwork. All of these resources helped her conquer her sexual assault trauma and later equipped her to face the pain she experienced with her father.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Another tool Kase utilized immediately after her traumatic encounter with her father is called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing or EMDR, which is backed by research. She found it to be profoundly helpful. Kase is currently an EMDR International Association member and trainer.

During EMDR, a trained clinician helps their patient pinpoint a specific memory or aspect of their lives that they want to work on. The patient only has to share as much information about the event as they are comfortable with, which makes it less daunting for many people. While it is commonly used for traumatic experiences, it can be employed for any facet of someone’s life where they feel stuck.

“It’s a different kind of therapy,” Kase says. “It’s not talk-therapy focused. EMDR asserts that most of our symptoms that we come to counseling for are the result of maladaptively stored memories. Think about something that has gotten stuck and it’s causing you yuck.”

Once you choose the experience or memory you want to work on, you visualize an image that reminds you of it, and you see yourself in that moment through the third person. You rank the discomfort it is causing you from 1 to 10.

Next, you use bilateral stimulation to help desensitize the traumatic memory. Bilateral stimulation occurs when a sight, sound or touch stimulus happens on both sides of your body. In EMDR therapy, this can happen in a variety of ways: looking at an object that is moving back and forth or diagonally, listening to a recording where sound moves from one ear to the other or physically tapping your shoulders or thighs with your hands in a cross-body, rhythmic pattern. During this process you observe the memory and your surfacing emotions.

After about 30 seconds of bilateral stimulation, you rank your discomfort again. The idea is to lessen or completely diminish your discomfort level. For some people’s experiences, this may only take one session. For others, some experiences may never be completely resolved or pain free.

Yoga Helps With Pain Tolerance 

A study published in Cerebral Cortex in 2013 showed yoga practitioners tolerated pain more than twice as long as nonpractitioners. The study found that yogis, or people who practice yoga, have more insular gray matter in regions of the brain responsible for pain control. Gray matter contains cells that regulate movement, memory and emotions. Furthermore, the study found that the longer someone practiced yoga, the stronger their pain tolerance. Yogis engage techniques such as positive imagery, relaxation, acceptance, observation of oneself in the third person and breathing to cope with pain.

A follow-up study published in May 2015 in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience observed the same participants, and found that yoga may have neuroprotective effects against age-related gray matter decline. This study observed mechanisms such as postures, breath control and meditation. Each aspect of a yoga practice and a combination of the three had a positive effect on gray matter. Those who practiced weekly yoga had greater effects.

Catherine Bushnell, the President of the International Association for the Study of Pain, co-authored both studies.

“The thing about yoga as opposed to other forms of exercise, is it does have multiple components, and clearly it can affect your emotional state,” Bushnell says. “All these aspects of yoga should be positive in terms of pain perception. We found that in fact, with pain threshold and tolerance, it had a greater effect than we expected.”

According to Bushnell, the areas of the brain responsible for processing both emotional and physical pain overlap. Kase found multiple aspects of her yoga practice to be helpful both in the moment and years after the conflict with her father.

“Things got really violent and out of control, and right then was a moment when my yoga really served me because I said, ‘I am living my dharma (purpose) right now,” Kase says. “That perspective, which I wouldn’t have without yoga philosophy, was so helpful in that moment.”

Yoga Can Be an Avoidance Tactic

Based on her experience as a therapist, Kase warns that yoga can also be a way to deflect feelings from coming up so you can work on them.

“Sometimes you need to feel that stuff and not just regulate it,” Kase says. “I absolutely see this come up in therapy when I’m working with yogis, where people say, ‘I feel some distress, I’m just going to breathe through it.’ And so one thing that I will invite in is, ‘What would happen if you didn’t breathe through it, and if you could sit through it?’”

Kase says nearly anything can be used as a way to avoid working on yourself in a meaningful way. But when yoga is practiced effectively, it helps with awareness and builds resilience to work on difficult aspects of life.

A Multi-Faceted Approach to Handle the Pain of Trauma

Kase says that we all experience trauma in our lives, and some events are more significant than others. A multi-pronged approach to work with the pain of trauma is most effective. She suggests being particular about finding a good therapist, one that is EMDRIA certified and whose training is up to date. It is also helpful to find a yoga community that encourages you to work on yourself, and with pain, rather than deflecting it.

While Kase doesn’t know whether the horrific experience she had with her father will ever be completely painless, yoga and EMDR allow her to feel better about it. In the future, Kase plans on sharing her story in a book.

“The truth I know from trauma work is that hurt people, hurt people,” Kase says. “And while I’m very sad about what happened and I miss my father every day, I wouldn’t take it back because I do see that experience and what I learned about myself from it was an incredible gift.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call the Suicide Prevention Resource Center at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or by dialing 988. The National Sexual Assault Hotline also provides resources to victims of assault and can be reached at 1-800-656-4673.

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