Empowering Trauma Survivors

Innovative program is supported by private gifts to the Mary Greeley Foundation

Close up of two rolled up yoga mats, yellow and pink, with a gleam of sun.An innovative new program on the Behavioral Health Unit at Mary Greeley Medical Center is putting the age-old practice of yoga to work to help survivors of trauma learn to manage their stressors. Trauma-sensitive yoga was introduced at Mary Greeley in March 2021 and is offered twice a week on the inpatient unit and once a week for sub-acute patients. In addition, classes are offered via Zoom for those who cannot attend in person.

The program is funded by private gifts to the Mary Greeley Medical Center Foundation.

The term trauma-sensitive yoga was coined by David Emerson, E-RYT, founder and director of yoga services at the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, MA, to describe the use of yoga as a complementary treatment within a clinical context.

The goal is to help participants heighten body awareness—to better tune in to what is happening inside their bodies—while learning to release tension, reduce and control fear and arousal, and tolerate sensation.

The offering is led by Eric McCabe and Liz Manion, both of whom have advanced training in facilitating trauma-sensitive yoga.

“The thing about trauma is that It's something that keeps coming back,” says Manion, who experienced trauma as a child. “It becomes a trigger that you just can't get away from. We are trying to teach them a different way to experience their bodies and to self-regulate so that when something comes up, they have a toolbox at the ready to deal with it in a healthier way.”

Specifically, the practice is based on the growing understanding that trauma takes a heavy toll on the body and the brain. When the body absorbs and anticipates trauma, individuals are likely to shut down, avoid stimuli and become “numb.” By helping them learn the practice of trauma-sensitive yoga they can gain insight on how to calm their minds and regulate their physical responses and, in turn, their emotions. A side benefit is that many who regularly practice trauma-sensitive yoga can learn to recognize and tolerate physical sensations and thereby regain a feeling of safety inside their bodies.

Manion says she feels fortunate to be able to offer such a valuable service to those who are so vulnerable.

“I love sharing what I've learned and giving it back to people who are, frankly, survivors of trauma,” she says. “They're brave people who survived trauma and this presents me an opportunity to give back to others and help them reconnect their minds and their bodies. Gaining a heightened sense of what they are feeling, trusting their bodies, and knowing they have choices provides them a great feeling. Seeing that transformation gives me a great feeling.”

Mackenzie Gustafson, Therapeutic Recreation Specialist in Behavioral Health at Mary Greeley Medical Center, says it is a valuable offering.

“It is important for us to have a program like this because it gives patients the chance to work through some of their past trauma,” she says. “This leaves most patients with a positive experience because it gives them a chance to be in charge of themselves and their own body. The facilitators and I really emphasize the fact that they are being given choices and aren’t being told there is only one way to do something.”

“My favorite part of the program is that all patients are welcome,” Gustafson continues, “all bodies, abilities, and ages. No experience is needed and there is no right or wrong way to do it as long as it is helping build skills to deal with trauma.”

Among the gifts that helped to start the program was a donation from the Georges Niang Charity Golf Outing. The outing is co-hosted by former Iowa State women’s basketball player Lyndsey Fennelly who has an innate understanding of the importance of quality mental health services in the community.

“After two different behavioral health stays and a total of 37 days, I recognized the importance my time on the Behavioral Health unit had on my life, my recovery, and my transition to living with a mental illness,” Fennelly says. “I did not want to hide behind the veil and negative stigma this disease often carried and instead wanted to get in front of the opportunity to contribute back to a place that gave so much to me.”

“The connection between body movement and healing for mental health patients is obvious,” she continues. “Knowing the resources from the golf outing directly benefit a program related to moving, learning to reconnect with oneself, and assisting the healing process connects to my personal journey. I was elated the funds were chosen for the trauma-sensitive yoga program.”

To support Mental Health Services, including this program, visit www.mgmc.org/foundation/mental-health

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