Complementary & Alternative Therapies for Veterans
Today, a variety of nontraditional techniques—from yoga to mindfulness to equine therapy—are being used to help veterans cope with life after combat.
The number of veterans using complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies to manage life after combat has increased significantly in the past decade. An increase in the availability of these therapies in general, as well support from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), has helped increase access to these treatments, giving vets a toolbox of new coping skills for post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.
What trait do these new tools share? A focus on the present moment. According to a New York Times editorial, alternative therapy group programs have a dropout rate of almost zero, while individual treatments like psychotherapy have approximately a 20 percent dropout rate. Many veterans also avoid traditional talk therapy because of a perceived negative social stigma, or because it requires they re-live painful past experiences by talking about them.
But practices like yoga and mindfulness allow veterans to stay centered on the now and learn tools they can utilize in any challenging moment.
The Veteran’s Holistic Healthcare Foundation of America, a nonprofit that links holistic healing practitioners with American veterans at no cost, uses the phrase, “skills not pills,” to refer to the power of holistic remedies.
“With a candid attitude and a positive approach, any obstacle can be overcome,” according to their website.
About 9 in 10 VA facilities now provide CAM therapies or refer patients to outside practitioners, according to a 2011 survey by VA's Health Care Analysis and Information Group. Yoga is offered at about 44 VA sites nationwide.
At the VA, CAM therapies are most most commonly used to help veterans manage stress and to treat issues like anxiety, PTSD, depression, back pain, and substance abuse. The most frequent referrals to outside practitioners are for acupuncture, animal-assisted therapy, and massage, according to the report.
The rising popularity of CAM therapies can also be attributed to more studies and research confirming the benefits.
A mindfulness-based group treatment plan, the first to look at the effects of mindfulness-based psychotherapy for veterans in a PTSD clinic, was recently found to be more effective than traditional treatment. The practices included meditation, stretching, and acceptance of thoughts and emotions, and the study confirms earlier research that this work can help people with a history of trauma.
“Part of the psychological process of PTSD often includes avoidance and suppression of painful emotions and memories, which allows symptoms of the disorder to continue,” said Anthony P. King, PhD, the study’s lead author in a statement. “Through the mindfulness intervention, however, we found that many of our patients were able to stop this pattern of avoidance and see an improvement in their symptoms.”
Yoga Warriors International is the first and largest program in the nation for healing combat veterans through yoga.
“Yoga directly addresses the fight-or-flight response,” according to the organization's website. “Because yoga deals directly with the mind-body connection, it helps veterans retrain the fight-or-flight response. Now, when they confront a situation that triggers their memories, instead of resorting to aggression or drowning in fear, they have other options: deep breathing, for example, as a means to self-calm.”
Research also backs up this sentiment. A small 2010 study by the U.S. Defense Department found that veterans diagnosed with PTSD showed improvement in their symptoms after just 10 weeks of yoga classes.
Equine therapy, where patients spend time taking care of and riding horses, is another tool used to address trauma that has caught on with the VA. More than 30 VA medical centers across the country now use some form of equine-assisted therapy for treating veterans.
The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association evaluated treatment of members of the Georgia National Guard and found that 100 percent of soldiers who completed the therapy had dramatically reduced stress levels.
“The therapy is effective because horses, like certain other animals, can sense human moods,” said Michael J. Miller, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota and a veteran specializing in treating people with PTSD in a New York Times article. “They notice when trauma victims begin to dissociate, a key symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
For some veterans, staying present might come through the click on an app.
Last year, the VA launched the PTSD Coach mobile app as a free download to help veteran's manage PTSD symptoms. The app has been downloaded more than 100,000 times in 74 countries and offers tools for tracking symptoms, skills to help handle stress symptoms, and direct links to support.
As more veterans and holistic practitioners continue to work together, the possibilities for greater healing and awareness will continue to grow. Imagine a world where every veteran has many strategies to work with and can customize their own treatment.