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Cope with emotions through mindfulness

Mindfulness helps you to face hard emotions instead of running from them. Learn how here.

Mindfulness can help you feel better equipped to handle difficult emotions. It’s a process geared to help you tune into emotional experiences rather than try to escape from them. People can feel overcome by depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, or other mental health problems, which, ironically, can be exacerbated by trying to forget the cause. For example, a Warfighter afflicted with PTSD often relives difficult events through dreams, flashbacks, or unwanted memories, because he/she desperately wants to avoid experiencing those events. To illustrate this idea, right now, try NOT to think of weapons. You probably thought about them that much more.

Practicing mindfulness mediation means focusing on whatever you are experiencing in the present moment. It can be a structured meditation activity, but because mindfulness is about being present, you can purposefully engage in mindfulness anytime, anywhere. A common meditative approach is to focus on a physical experience such as your breathing, noticing where your attention wanders, and gently guiding it back to your breath; it allows you to experience sadness, anger, fear, and other unpleasant emotions, letting them pass without clinging to the idea of making them go away.”

If you have ever “white-knuckled” your way through an amusement park ride (or ridden in a car with a driver you didn’t trust), you may remember thinking, “When will this be over? Please let it be over…” This shows that focusing on how long something lasts can make it feel like an eternity. By engaging in mindfulness, you will feel less threatened by certain emotions, and you will be less likely to engage in problematic forms of escape (such as drinking, drugs, or simply spacing out).

When people experience difficult emotions, they often cope by engaging the language center of the brain, using words internally to wrestle with the experience. But when people have difficulty re-evaluating why they feel the way they do, this leads to a circular internal debate (such as “I shouldn’t feel this way, but I do, but I shouldn’t…”), which can be pointless and can actually cause more distress. Emotions can be dealt with not just through words but also by tapping into their physical elements (noticing how you feel in your body). When people engage in regular mindfulness practice, the parts of their brains tuned into physical sensations are activated while they experience hard emotions. And people who regularly have this part of their brain activated tend to be more emotionally steady.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to escape unwanted emotions. And more problems will probably pop up as you try to escape. But if you’re willing to face hard emotions, letting them come and go like waves on a beach, then mindfulness practice can help you have a different experience. Tune in to HPRC for more mindfulness resources, and take advantage of the fact that mindfulness is everywhere now, whether part of your martial arts or yoga class or filling the self-help shelves of your local bookstore. Become more mindful, and you can feel better equipped to handle tough emotions; your mind and body will engage them more productively.

PTSD can “short-circuit” your brain

Filed under: Mind, Mind tactics, PTSD
PTSD affects the “circuitry” of the brain. Learn how PTSD-affected brains confuse threat and safety.

PTSD was finally recognized as a medical condition when recent advances in neuroscience showed that the brain no longer works properly after trauma. Your brain has an alarm system to help ensure your survival; it’s useful as long as it works properly. When the alarm system malfunctions because traumatic events pushed it to its limits, the part of the brain responsible for thinking and memory can’t function properly. When this happens, a person with PTSD can’t compare what’s happening now with events in the past when they were safe. However, there are treatments to help “rewire” the brain, so it can work properly again. Learn more about this in “How is your brain’s circuitry affected by PTSD?”

When “moral injuries” add to PTSD pain

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Filed under: Mind, PTSD, Stress
PTSD can haunt Warfighters with lingering fear or inner conflict called “moral injuries.” Learn more about this phenomenon.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can tear apart your sense of what is safe and of what is good.

Part of the diagnosis of PTSD is exposure to a traumatic event: death, serious injury, sexual violence, or the threat of any of these. PTSD symptoms such as intrusive memories, avoidance of situations or feelings, problems in thinking or mood, and feeling overly amped up are common reactions to abnormal circumstances. Think of PTSD symptoms as self-preservation instincts gone haywire. One theory holds that, because you nearly died or experienced something awful or could picture it because it happened to someone close to you, your mind/body tries to sound the alarm bells to keep you safe. But the alarm bells sound at the wrong times and in the wrong ways.

However, PTSD symptoms can come from sources other than fear of bodily harm. They also can arise from inner conflict, when emotions trigger feelings such shame and guilt or when you question fundamental beliefs (such as “the world is basically good”). Witnessing or experiencing betrayal (especially by a leader in a high-stakes situation), within-ranks violence, extreme violence, and incidents involving civilians are some of what can disrupt your world view. It isn’t just an event but the interpretation of an event that causes Warfighters to experience “moral injury.”

If you suffer moral injury as part of PTSD, you start believing you live in an immoral world, or you view yourself as immoral, irredeemable, and defective. If you’re a Warfighter experiencing these feelings, you not only feel lousy, but you are more likely to isolate yourself just when you need others more than ever. Isolation can lead to self-handicapping or self-destructive behaviors.

So how do you save yourself from experiencing moral injury as a part of PTSD? Having a healthy sense of self-esteem can be one of your best protectors. There are no quick fixes. But forgiveness—of others and of yourself—can help you to let go of moral injury. With the help of a psychotherapist, you can begin to wrap your heart and mind around what happened. And pursuing positive interactions, such as getting involved with charitable groups, can give you opportunities to relearn that you are good and the other people in the world are generally good too. Last but not least, connecting with your spirituality—in whatever way is comfortable to you—can help you navigate this difficult journey.

Finding the “new normal”

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After a major trauma, illness, or life-changing event, it is often necessary to adapt your lifestyle and create a new version of what feels “normal.”

Bad things happen. Unfortunately, you can count on experiencing different traumas, deaths, illnesses, and injuries. As a Warfighter (or military family), you can probably expect to face these kinds of situations more often than other people. That doesn’t make these experiences any more pleasant, and often it doesn’t make them any less surprising. After a major trauma, illness, or life-changing event, it is often necessary to adapt and create a “new normal.”

Studies of “post-traumatic growth” have found that trauma survivors can grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually after horrendous experiences such as cancer, terrorism, sexual assault, plane crashes, and even combat. It’s common to react with an emotional roller coaster of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Your natural instinct might be to run from these feelings. However, post-traumatic growth can be accomplished better by taking steps to approach them. The people who support you (including but not limited to therapists and family members) can do the following:

  • Listen empathically, accepting and encouraging full expression of feelings.
  • Avoid clichés and easy answers. Hearing “there will be brighter days” is not helpful.
  • Be patient. Changing perspective won’t happen overnight.
  • Offer a helpful relationship, recognizing there is no “magic technique” or “quick fix.”

You can also be an active agent in your own healing. One technique that can be useful to you is to tell and retell versions of your story in order to become more immune to the hard parts and to reach a point where you can find new meaning in it. People of any age, including Warfighters, can benefit from actively embracing a “new normal” through taking advantage of your relationships and developing a new twist on their story, even when this initially might seem far-fetched.

Virtual reality: game or treatment?

Virtual reality isn’t just for entertainment anymore—its applications include use by the military to treat symptoms of PTSD and other combat-related injuries.

Virtual reality was first introduced as a therapy tool for people with anxiety disorders such as phobias, but it is now used for a wide range of conditions, from PTSD to childhood ADHD. In fact, it recently warranted its own symposium at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where experts exchanged ideas on the current state of research.

Virtual environments used in therapy sessions are created for the individual’s needs—for example, a noisy classroom for a child with ADHD, the re-creation of the 9/11 attacks for a firefighter or police officer, or “Virtual Iraq” for a soldier. “Virtual Afghanistan” is the newest creation and is already being used to help service members overcome PTSD. Active-duty men and women are gradually brought back to their traumatic event using the virtual world as the therapist provides verbal cues to facilitate the healing process.

With a view to mitigating future need for therapy, a series of episodes is currently being created to provide pre-deployment “Stress Resilience Training for Warfighters.” The goal is to help reduce the risk of PTSD and better prepare warriors for actual scenarios they will encounter in theater.

For more information about how to prevent and manage stress, visit HPRC’s Stress Control section.

Chaplain group tackles Warfighter performance issues

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Military chaplains have a working group that discusses emerging spiritual and behavioral issues Warfighters deal with on the front lines and post-deployment.

A working group of military chaplains makes time each month to discuss new research, practical strategies, and frontline experiences around topics like PTSD, spirituality, moral injury, and sexual assault. The September 2012 meeting focused on PTSD. From participant LTC Dave Grossman came this advice: “We are all going to have bad days as we walk our warrior path. Do not destroy yourself because of the bad days and never judge yourself by your worst day.” The article from the Defense Centers of Excellence highlights some advice from this group for tackling tough issues from a spiritual perspective.

If you would like more information on the Chaplain Working Group, you can send an email to dcoechap@tma.osd.mil.

Get moving to help manage PTSD

Research has found that those with PTSD are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease; for some, exercise might be a great addition to other types of treatment.

The physical and emotional stress associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can raise your blood pressure and cholesterol and increase body mass index, all of which are risk factors for heart disease. Veterans suffering from PTSD are more than twice as likely to die from a heart attack than those without PTSD. While the exact relationship between PTSD and heart disease is not fully understood, we know that regular exercise can help prevent heart disease and other risk factors, which could be helpful for those with PTSD. Some types of exercise can be effective in reducing psychological symptoms associated with PTSD and also can play a role in reducing unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, being overweight, and physical inactivity—sometimes byproducts of trying to cope. If you think that exercise might help you or a loved one cope with PTSD, speak with your healthcare provider to assess how much and what kind of exercise is best!

Namaste: Using yoga to manage PTSD and TBI symptoms

Wounded warriors are using yoga as a way to manage stress and other symptoms involved with PTSD and TBI.

Yoga’s popularity is growing in the United States, but many Americans are still not familiar with the details of this ancient practice. Yoga roots are holistic in nature—body and mind are of equal importance, and the asanas, or poses, which define yoga for many of us, are only one aspect of practice. Together with meditation and breath control, yoga promotes strength, flexibility, and awareness of body and mind. Yoga can help achieve wellness through meditation, deep relaxation, stretching, and breathing. Several organizations are now beginning to provide yoga classes tailored to veterans and active-duty service members who suffer from combat stress. VA facilities, Warrior Transition Units, and civilian studios are using it to complement traditional treatment of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

Individuals who struggle with PTSD describe it as a feeling of disconnectedness from themselves and others. Yoga, which means “bringing together parts as a whole,” helps people feel connected again. One traditional type of yoga that has been shown to decrease anxiety in the military population is sensory-enhanced hatha yoga, which involves breathing, meditation, and certain poses. A specific benefit reported by participants in sensory-enhanced yoga was a decrease in insomnia. Combat-stressed adults also experienced reduced hyperarousal symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and rage. Integrative Restoration (iRest) is a yoga-based meditative practice that teaches a person to focus on breathing when a negative memory arises. Soldiers and marines have expressed satisfaction in these breathing techniques because of the method’s simplicity and ease. It allows a person to regain control over his/her thoughts whenever symptoms of PTSD present themselves. A study found that iRest decreases rage, anxiety, and emotional reactivity all of which encourage negative thoughts and memories. Those practicing iRest also reported increased feelings of relaxation, peace, self-awareness, and self-efficacy. Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) was one of the first military facilities to research the outcomes of yoga for veterans and active-duty warriors suffering from PTSD. WRAMC immediately added iRest to its weekly treatment programs for soldiers suffering from PTSD and TBI after observing its effects: increased calm and peaceful feelings, less severe reactions to situations, and increased outlook on life.

There are many more yoga practices than the ones mentioned here, and each yoga method is different, so you can find the right one for you!

Science article asks: Are we winning the war against PTSD?

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A review on how the military is preventing and addressing PTSD in troops suggests that programs are helping keep rates low.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has been one of the military’s top priorities in the past few years, especially after reports of projected rates as high as 30% in veterans. However, a May 2012 Science article points to new findings that might indicate lower PTSD rates currently across all services—between 2.1 and 13.8%. Taking into consideration under-reporting due to stigma, the authors suggest these low rates might be due to the targeted attention that PTSD has received, along with interest in bolstering Warfighter resilience. The article cites the military’s adoption of resilience programs such as “Battlemind” as possible contributors to these low rates. The authors recommend more in-depth research to determine the effectiveness of such programs.

Leveraging mindfulness as a performance-optimization tool

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Practicing mindfulness can improve performance by reducing stress and increasing well-being.

PsychCentral’s March 2012 "Ask the Therapist" article addresses how mindfulness relates to military performance—especially important now that the military has been incorporating mindfulness tactics for enhancing Warfighter mental and physical resilience. Of particular note is a study from the Journal of Clinical Psychology that demonstrated significant improvements in PTSD symptoms, depression, etc. in veterans after completing a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. The article also noted other studies that showed long-term stress-reduction, well-being, and positive experiences. Simply put, acknowledging emotional pain helps you overcome it. You are then able to focus and communicate with loved ones more effectively.

If you’d like to learn more about meditation and mindfulness, check out the Mind Tactics section of the HPRC website, which contains many resources related to meditation and mindfulness, as well as resources related to mental fitness, mental toughness, and resilience.

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