We're finally figuring it out, people. Research from around the country is giving us the keys to helping our traumatized troops coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq. The only problem is, it will be at least a year - maybe two - before these studies are published.
Meantime, our warriors suffer mightily - PTSD is a terrible condition that often worsens over time. Researchers can't talk about their results in any detail until their work is published. But I'm under no such constraints. So I'm dedicating this column to sharing the evolving info about what actually helps heal PTSD.
The tools that work so well are neither complicated nor expensive. They're interventions that ping on the primitive structures in the brain, where posttraumatic stress sits and wreaks its havoc. These are tools like guided imagery, relaxation, meditation, hypnosis, breath work, acupoint pressing & tapping, yoga, Qigong, Reiki, massage therapy, Healing Touch and more. I'll explain, but first let me back up a bit and start from the beginning.
What we clinicians have been learning ever so painfully over the past 2-3 decades is that standard psychotherapy doesn't help much with PTSD (and, to no one's surprise, most soldiers won't go to a therapist anyway.)
I'm one of those clinicians who for years toiled fecklessly in the swampy fields of PTSD, getting sucked into the mire, just like everyone else. Even though I was pretty skilled at my craft - a therapist's therapist, if you will - I regularly failed at making a dent on PTSD.
I could no more fix the ugly re-experiencing symptoms (flashbacks, repetitive nightmares & intrusive thoughts) than I could the dramatic swings between intense terror & rage and its dreary opposite: emotional numbness and isolation.
In fact, sometimes my standard talk therapy seemed to make things worse. Asking somebody to describe what happened would generate a fresh flood of flashbacks and nightmares, followed by more swings between terror and numbness. When somebody in my care did improve, I had the sneaking suspicion that this was someone who would have gotten better anyway.
Here's the thing: we've been trying to fix a problem that sits in the primitive, survival-based structures of the brain - areas that deal in sensation, emotion, perception, muscular reactivity and instinct - using a higher cortical technique whose currency is talking, thinking and analyzing. No wonder it misfires.
Keep in mind, a traumatic event is defined as anything that produces the perception of impending annihilation by overwhelming force, generating a mix of terror and helplessness that floods the body's biochemistry with survival-driven stress hormones and natural opioids. This imprints the nervous system to remember, always. It's nature's way of saying, "Don't make this same mistake twice or you'll be dead".
Left to its own progression, this hyper-reactivity stays embedded in the nervous system, gaining in intensity as it loops back and forth between stressed re-arousal and the body's attempts to settle itself back down, through an increasingly sensitized, irritated neuronal network. This is why symptoms often get worse over time. And this is why symptoms will look pretty much the same, whether generated by a car crash, a hurricane, a rape or a combat encounter - it's all the same survival response.)
For this nasty condition, we need tools that re-regulate the body and allow the owner of these symptoms to put his or her stress management on "manual" - tools that go straight to instinct, not thinking. No wonder immersive, right brain methods make such dramatic inroads on symptoms - guided imagery and hypnosis; certain kinds of body work, such as massage therapy, Reiki, Healing Touch; and new protocols combining imagery with acupoint tapping or pressing, with odd alphabet names, such as EMDR, EFT, SE, TIR, IRT, TAT and the exuberantly named WHEE.
Wonderful results have emerged from 3 different guided imagery studies with traumatized troops at Duke Medical Center/Durham V.A. hospital, showing that after 6-8 weeks of listening five times a week to a half hour's worth of calming guided imagery downloads, symptoms drop dramatically. This is true for male or female warriors, middle aged or young adult, Vietnam or Iraq vets. It works for military sexual trauma or combat trauma or both; and with or without active substance abuse. Improvements appear to hold over time, too. The imagery is a simple, portable, user-friendly and non-threatening group of audio downloads - an intervention that stays the same each time it's used and can even go back to Iraq with the user on his or her MP3 player. And it's not only inexpensive - it's bootleggable, for heaven's sake.
Scripps Hospital is finding the same and then some in its study of a couple hundred traumatized Marines coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan: when guided imagery downloads are combined with a simple body-calming technique called Healing Touch, symptoms of PTSD drop impressively.
Keep in mind that two separate surveys establish that our troops prefer getting their help via audio self-help by over 70%. Medication comes next at around 55%. Last on the list? Yep, you guessed it: sitting with a therapist.
So, people, we've got a lot of intensely distressed warriors coming home, and the sooner we remediate these PTSD symptoms, the better. If you or someone you know is suffering from posttraumatic stress, find some solid self-regulation audio tools, like guided imagery, hypnosis or relaxation, to listen to a minimum of a half hour every day. (Check out some samples on this page, developed for a Veteran's Advocacy group.) And find a certified Healing Touch practitioner and get regular sessions, a couple of times a week (better yet, listen to your audio while getting a treatment).
Within weeks of regular, dedicated practice, the agitated neuronal network and extreme biochemical swings that drive so much of PTSD's distress will start to settle down. Then, in a year or so, when the research data get published, you can read why these methods worked so efficiently and effectively. In the meantime, get the help now.