In the last past year, I have had the privilege of working with veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have taught me some of the costs of war, the power of the human spirit and the resiliency of our bodies and brains.
So many of our veterans are suffering with symptoms of PTSD, which range from muscle tightness, headaches, insomnia, anxiety, night terrors, flashbacks, hyper-arousal/vigilance, social detachment and suicidal thoughts.
Because of modern advancements in military combat and in combat medicine, many more lives have been spared; however, I have learned, life is never the same after experiencing war. Even those who didn’t see battle, have experienced the effects of it and were in some way changed by it.
The veterans, with whom I worked, were triggered by visuals, smells and noises. These, mostly unnoticed stimuli elicited involuntary, physical stress responses they couldn’t control.
Imagine being unable to sit and eat in a restaurant because being around so many people caused a level of fear that was uncomfortable.
Imagine sitting in traffic, suddenly experiencing a flashback of the time your Humvee ran over an IED in Afghanistan and suddenly feeling so shaken up, you had to pull over on the side of the road.
Imagine being plagued by horrible nightmares of the worst moments of your deployment or being the wife of that veteran waking up to your husband’s scream, as he jolts out of bed. Imagine the sleepless nights weighted by sadness, because there is nothing you can do to comfort him.
While it was heart aching to hear their stories and to see their torment, the time I have spent working with these brave veterans was unbelievably rewarding.
In our sessions, we identified the most stressful memory from their deployment, and the exercise, which helped by relaxing their body, as they thought about it. We rated their emotional distress and physical tightness, as we did each exercise until we brought their stress level down from a level 10 on our intensity scale (10 high-1 low) to below a 2.
Then, we began looking at the current life triggers, which were causing their involuntary physical reactions, and were able to apply the same exercise in the moment that we noticed the trigger.
With one veteran, we started in the office with a recording of his baby crying, which triggered memories from the house raids which were routine during his deployment.
We did the exercises, which worked best for him, and got him down from an 8 to a 2 in stress level. In our first session, we addressed the most stressful memory from his deployment, a childhood memory with a similar emotional charge and the charge from several current life triggers. His will to gain control over and to conquer these previously involuntary responses, which were sabotaging his life, gave credit to the power of the human spirit to heal.
His stress responses were habitual, and as we ventured out of the office the next day into NYC, we were able to re-train some of those habitual responses to triggers in real time, as they were happening. As we walked away from my office, he asked me to move to his left side because he was getting tense. When I stopped and asked why, he explained that even though he wasn’t armed or in danger, he felt he needed to have his right arm and side free, in case something happened. I could see the change in him, as he became more hyper aware being out on the street. We stopped, and I asked him to do the crossed posture that had worked to bring his stress response down in the office, and to notice his current surroundings as he did it. We noticed he was triggered by the faced paced energy on the street, and we calmed his stress response with an exercise he could easily do anywhere to physically override his Sympathetic, Fight or Flight Response, so we could let his body and brain know that despite the trigger, in the current scenario, he was actually OK.
We were able to do this several times over the next 3 hours when we ventured to a restaurant for lunch and overcame the stress of having his back to the center of the room and a waiter moving around him, in a taxi cab with a driver of Middle Eastern decent and when he got wind of an odor which reminded him of Iraq. Both he and I were exhilarated when he was able to notice his body’s reaction to the stress and to calm himself down with his new tools.
After suffering with symptoms that came on it seemed without warning for years, he was now noticing and disarming his own triggers. It was going to take work, but he could see how he himself could train his body to respond differently with his new awareness and new tools for calming himself down.
And, I say, if these veterans can overcome the symptoms of PTSD with these tools, you too can overcome your stress responses. While you may not have seen the front lines, most people with whom I work have experienced some traumatic events, which have caused unconscious stress responses in their current lives. If you have ever asked yourself, “Why am I getting so stressed about this situation? I know I have handled stuff like this before.” If you are questioning why you are so anxious about something or can’t understand why you can’t sleep, you are probably having a stress response, which was triggered by a current event but linked to a past trauma.
The good news is these responses can be retrained. The veterans with whom I have worked have proved the resiliency of the body and the brain. You too can notice your stress reactions and begin to retrain them and get relief.
The top favorites of my veterans are the crossed posture, the triple warmer massage and essential oils.
The videos of the first two are below. Please start using them daily. I find its best to just set three times a day to do the crossed posture. It takes under a minute to just breathe and to calm your body down in this posture that can be done anywhere. You might be surprised to see just how much more relaxed your day can be incorporating these exercises. The Triple Warmer massage is great for a specific reaction to something. Rate your stress before and after you do these.
If you are a veteran or know a veteran and you would like to be a part of my next free stress relief program for veterans, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Grateful to have had the opportunity to serve this community,