Many have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition experienced by some soldiers returning from war, or by people suffering from a life-threatening accident. Cancer patients and survivors experience similar stress. We feel bombarded by frightening information, subjected to invasive procedures, and must endure cold clinics and blank stares.
Not everyone though manages stress with the same success, and a 2009 study by Costanzo, Ryff, and Singer developed and tested a concept that measures how we respond to post-traumatic stress growth, the positive flip side to suffering with stress.20 The researchers categorized the elements of surviving stressful events in three ways: survival with impairment, survival with resilience, and survival by thriving. Surviving with impairment, a survivor may blame her trauma on everything wrong with life. Surviving with resilience means she may recover from the trauma and live a serviceable life. Surviving by thriving though occurs when people make the traumatic event a pivotal point in life, changing their situation by making lemonade out lemons—ultimately thriving after cancer, for instance. The thriving survivor enjoys her blissful moments, which can lead to further change and the ability to find positive ways to manage stress.
About managing stress and cancer, Suzanne Danhauer of Wake Forest School of Medicine says, “Given the high levels of stress and distress that cancer patients experience, the opportunity to feel more peaceful and calm is a significant benefit.” She goes on to describe results of random trials studying the effects of yoga on emotions. Her research, conducted in 2009, found an increase of positive emotions such as calmness and a sense of purpose in over 50 percent of her subjects.
So, a growing body of research shows that yoga provides emotional benefits. Whether we use yoga to lose weight gained by taking medication, to detox our body following chemotherapy, or to regain the use of our arms, practicing yoga helps us feel better. As these benefits become more apparent, we experience increased well-being and, more importantly, feel more empowered than before. A positive spiral toward health results; as we continue to feel better, we make even better decisions about how to bring balance and ease to our lives.
Often, survivors with a yoga practice are surprised to find self-healing and empowerment in addition to their newfound well-being. Yoga empowers us to define life on our own terms. A solid practice can help reduce drug dependency or leave us feeling like we had a great massage. Ultimately, yoga helps us create a sense of balance between body and mind, the physical and the spiritual.
A final point: The first obstacle to exploring the great promises of a yoga practice is accepting that things are never going to be the same—and that is okay. Learning how to practice self-compassion is the most important benefit of all, what I call the bliss benefit.