Healing from toxic stress

This blog is written by Minna Järvenpää.  For Minna, yoga and meditation have played a key role in regaining inner balance. She is now finding ways to share the tools she learned, through Tools for Inner Peace, which promotes the mental and emotional wellbeing of aid workers, journalists and other frontline professionals.

first_snow_on_the_main_bridge_in_mitrovica

First snow on the main bridge in Mitrovica. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Somewhere along a decade-long road from Sarajevo to Kabul I started tilting out of balance – as a result of toxic levels of stress.

The tipping point came on a day of rioting in Mitrovica on 17 March 2004. Nineteen people were killed that day and two hundred hospitalised. I was the ‘Mayor’ of Mitrovica, appointed by the UN in Kosovo as caretaker when the Serbs of the divided town refused to vote. I had seen the violence coming but had been unable to convince those who could have prevented it to act. During the months after leaving Kosovo, I sat and stared out at the Adriatic sea, until the images of that day blurred along with the remembered smell of tear-gas and the sound of bullets ricocheting from the trees.

Already in the lead-up to the violence, I had developed brutal insomnia and started lashing out at people in a state of exhausted dysfunction. The only times I remember experiencing real relaxation in the months before March 2004 were when a friend and colleague in Mitrovica dragged me along to a yoga class.

In the aftermath, when I began suffering from hypervigilance (every car on the road was potentially out to run me over) and avoiding people and conversations that would trigger memories of trauma, yoga again came to the rescue. This time a friend from India invited me to visit and packed me off to an ashram for a week of yoga and meditation. After just a week, I felt my core sense of security and optimism restored. To maintain this feeling, I started going to regular yoga classes upon my return.

By the time I signed up for another mission in 2007, this time in Afghanistan, I knew I needed a regular daily yoga practice to keep myself from burning out the way I had previously in Bosnia and Kosovo. I started off with a retreat to establish my practice, and then put myself on a simple and gentle daily yoga routine that I kept up throughout my years in Kabul: an hour first thing each morning of physical asanas, breathing practices and a short meditation.

The benefits of yoga were tangible. I could watch fear and other emotions rise up without being pulled into a whirlpool of anxiety. More than once, I remember hearing a loud explosion during a morning meditation, registering it as a likely suicide attack, yet holding on to my practice and the calm space that meditation had created within me.

The brain and body are changed by toxic stress – but they can recover. A key to healing is quieting the brain and rebalancing the nervous system. One of the leading innovators of the treatment of traumatic stress, clinical psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, explains why yoga is an exceptionally effective means of doing this: “Yoga helps regulate emotional and physiological states. It allows the body to regain its natural movement and teaches the use of breath for self-regulation. What is beautiful about yoga is that it teaches us—and this is a critical point for those who feel trapped in their memory sensations—that things come to an end.” [1]

Yoga is a means of engaging the body in a mindful way, with particular attention given to the breath. This soothes the nervous system and gives rise to a profound feeling of relaxation. Relaxation in turn allows for the release of deep-seated memories which otherwise get held in the body – and are felt variously as discomfort, tension and pain.

There is a beauty and grace in recovery. After the events in Mitrovica, I connected to the sea, as I always have, feeling deep joy in looking out at the horizon and trusting it to hold and caress my body. Yoga and meditation gave me the tools to hold on to that inner strength and happiness in tough times to come.

My personal experience has led me, together with a group of yoga teachers and former frontline professionals, to set up a charity called Tools for Inner Peace (www.tools4innerpeace.org) as a means of sharing what we’ve learned with others. I see so many colleagues – aid workers, journalists, UN officials – burning out, becoming cynical and losing their direction. The retreats and workshops we offer through Tools for Inner Peace use yoga to build resilience, and offer an experience of the wellbeing, peace and inner clarity that an integrated yoga practice brings.

***

[1] “Yoga and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: An Interview with Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.”, Integral Yoga Magazine (2009): pp.12-13.

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