PTSD affects around 20% of veterans and current treatments are only effective for about half of them, but research by Stanford scholar Emma Seppala, associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education has found that breathing exercises significantly decreased PTSD in veterans. Furthermore, the effects of a weeklong workshop that involved practicing the techniques persisted a year later.
Seppala’s study, which began in 2010, involved 21 male veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wards. Half of the participants went through a seven-day workshop that focused on breathing techniques from Sudarshan Kriya Yoga practice. The rhythmic breathing is meant to induce physical and mental relaxation, as well as reduce the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. Seppala described the exercises as “an active breathing intervention.”
Participants completed questionnaires about how they were feeling both before and after the daily workshops. They also went through cognitive and psychological tests that measured their reactions to things like loud noises or other startling stimuli. The veterans went through testing again one month and then one year after the workshop’s completion.
Accessibility is one possible reason for why the breathing exercises are proving effective. Seppala commented, “Certain exercises are not always accessible to people injured in war. Therapies that require sitting are difficult, too, for someone with high anxiety … however, the breathing is so active it gives them something to do and relaxes them.”
Although treatments like this one have been available to veterans through programs like Project Welcome Home Troops, this research provides data that corroborates existing anecdotal evidence on mindful breathing treatments. Seppala’s goal is that this data will influence policy and policymakers to provide funding or other support for treatments like these.
Alternative treatments such as yogic breathing are also important because many veterans quit traditional therapy in favor of self-medication through alcohol or cannabis. Traditional therapy involves recalling traumatic events, which can prove challenging for veterans. Fortunately, yogic breathing has fewer side effects and is more economical than therapy or drugs. Said Seppala, “Veterans don’t want to depend on a drug or therapist or some survivors group. Practices that give them the tools to help themselves … are a fantastic fit for them.”