The military excels at creating trained combat professionals who stand out in their ability to protect American interests. The military’s challenge lies in helping soldiers transition back from battlefields and into families and neighborhoods, a challenge made more difficult if soldiers have served several tours of duty. While warfare and medical technological improvements result in fewer physical casualties, more of our returning troops are experiencing mental health issues. Shining a positive light is the emerging recognition of the value of mind-body training in reducing the severity of stress disorders and enhancing recovery from the emotional wounds of war, which, though not always visible, can be deeply scarring.
Mind-Body: A Better Alternative to Meds?
Contemporary treatment methods now offered to veterans to manage mental health symptoms include a variety of therapies, from counseling and psychotherapy to medications and cognitive behavioral therapies. According to David Emerson, E-RYT, director of yoga services at the Trauma Center, Justice Resource Institute, in Brookline, Massachusetts, “The issue with medications is that [they tend] to make [veterans], at least the Marines that I worked with at Camp Lejeune, feel even more out of control. What they want is to feel empowered, not dependent, to feel in control and to be able to calm themselves down when they need to.” Other vets describe being on meds as feeling numbed, able to go through the motions of daily life, but not feeling like themselves.
Other treatments, like individual or group counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy, heal through release and analytic processing of emotional experiences and reactions; often, however, these approaches do not reach the trauma memory stored in the body. Veterans have been taught to “weaponize” their minds and bodies for warfare. Emerson adds, “Vets have told me that their bodies are vehicles for violence, and that works in combat but is dysfunctional when they return. These folks deserve to have their lives and their bodies back in a way that is safe and functional in a noncombat reality.” What only mind-body approaches offer vets is an integrative visceral and spiritual experience of peace and tranquility—and an opportunity to be physical, but in a nonviolent way.
What Researchers Are Finding
Preliminary research on the use of mind-body skills with military personnel includes a study published in the journal Emotion. Soldiers who practiced mindfulness more frequently and for longer periods of time experienced less loss of working memory capacity and did not experience an increase in perceived stress, compared with soldiers who had also received the mindfulness training but did not practice the techniques as often.
Kaye Coker, MSW, LCSW, a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher and a psychotherapist in Decatur and Snellville, Georgia, explains, “Mindfulness practices potentiate emotion regulation, which is important in managing the stresses and effects of war. This is critical in working with combat stress and hopefully preventing it from developing into PTSD. Mindfulness practices also enable us to work with indicators of PTSD, thus offering an effective way of treating the symptoms and alleviating suffering. Emotional avoidance is one of the coping strategies that can become a way of life. We especially see that in our Vietnam vets who have suffered for 40 years. And [emotional avoidance] can be worked with effectively with mindfulness practices.”
Researchers at The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, are currently conducting studies to evaluate and compare the effectiveness of various complementary and alternative programs on veteran populations. Methods being studied range from brain imaging to psychophysiology to clinical evaluation. This research will help determine whether these programs are beneficial for veterans with PTSD; if so, which programs are most effective; and finally, whether different people benefit from programs differently, depending on their psychological differences.
To learn how mind-body professionals are helping veterans, and how you can contribute if you are interested, see the complete article, “Healing Wounded Warriors,” in the online IDEA Library or in October 2010 IDEA Fitness Journal.