Alternative Modalities for Healing Trauma
The impact of war can take a tremendous toll on the body, mind, and soul. Research shows that up to 30 percent of the nearly 3 million U.S. troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking care for post-traumatic stress, depression, or anxiety. More veterans than ever are exploring alternative modalities for healing, thanks to more research to support the benefits and better access through VA hospitals and community programs. Some leading-edge alternative modalities for care are presented here.
Yoga can help veterans soothe an over-stimulated nervous system and reconnect to their body. Research shows it can support healing conditions like sleep disorders and depression. Yoga for Vets, founded by a former Navy deep sea diver, features a database of free yoga classes offered to vets throughout the country. Yoga teacher Beryl Bender Birch, director and founder of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, has developed many yoga resources for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in the past two years.
The Walk Off The War program supports veterans transitioning from their military service by offering resources to help them hike a National Scenic Trail. It was created by Sean Gobin, who hiked all 2,185 miles of the Appalachian Trail after returning from three combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He realized the therapeutic benefits of walking to help decompress and wanted to help other veterans use the outdoors as an alternative therapy.
Acupuncture is currently under study at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C. as a treatment modality for post-traumatic stress in returning veterans. Acupuncture Without Borders created a Military Stress Recovery Project in 2006, and now has clinics in Boston, Seattle, Chicago, and other U.S. cities. Treatments are based on the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) five-point ear protocol, which has proven effective for stress and trauma.
MINDFULNESS-BASED STRESS REDUCTION (MBSR)
MBSR, or the practice of present moment awareness, can help increase overall feelings of well-being, bring a deeper sense of purpose, and help deepen our relationships. Studies have found MBSR to be a feasible intervention for veterans with mental health conditions. The Mindful Veterans Project, founded in 2008 by Richard Vandemark and Dr. Teri Davis, is just one program of the many found across the United States that teach MBSR classes to veterans and their families.
“Meditation is not only something we do seated on a cushion or a chair. It is the way we live our life. We can learn and practice specific forms of meditation in order to wake up to the reality that spiritual practice and daily life are not two different things,” writes Vietnam veteran and Zen priest Claude AnShin Thomas on his website for the Zaltho Foundation, whose purpose is to promote peace and nonviolence. Research from the VA is finding that the practice of meditation and slowing down the mind can significantly help veterans dealing with trauma.
MINDFULNESS-BASED MIND FITNESS TRAINING (MMFT)
MMFT (pronounced “M-fit”) helps create mindfulness skills with specific exercises, which start with building concentration by focusing on one object of attention, such as the breath, contact between the body and the floor, or feelings within certain body parts. It also provides skills and training for coping with the physiological and psychological effects of being exposed to extreme, prolonged stress. This modality draws on more than 30 years of mindfulness training research and continued studies.
Visual processing uses a different part of the brain than verbal processing, so art therapy is a practice that can heal in a different way than talk therapy. This modality shows promise of treating deeper emotional issues related to post-traumatic stress like avoidance and emotional numbing. The Combat Paper Project, based in San Francisco, is one type of art therapy that helps veterans create artwork from their uniforms. The threads get cut up and converted into sheets of paper. Veterans use the process of papermaking to express their military experiences.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
For many veterans, emotional pain can take a long time to heal. But EMDR shows that the mind can heal from psychological trauma just as the body heals from physical trauma. This therapy addresses past experiences that can trigger dysfunctional emotions or sensations and help veterans adopt new behaviors and habits. It is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and Department of Defense to help treat post-traumatic stress, with more than 20 studies that support its use.
Working on a farm can help heal physical and mental barriers. Veterans Farm is one program that teaches veterans farming skills and techniques to start their own farm or work for a farm organization, while allowing the healing process to take place.
“Since working at the Veterans Farm I have been able to do something the doctors said I’d never be able to do and that’s quit pain medications. Because I have a place to decompress I have even quit smoking. Today the future is bright for me and my family,” said Patrick Sanders, disabled combat veteran, on their website.
Music is another venue for healing. The Center for American Military Music Opportunities is one nonprofit that develops music therapy programs to help heal post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries. Another program, Guitars for Vets, began in Milwaukee and now has almost 40 chapters throughout the country that provide weekly lessons with volunteer instructors. Their pilot program was found to improve quality of life and reduce depression.