Learning to Breathe Again: How to Approach the Stress of Military

By: Emma Seppala, PhD.

The Benefits Complementary & Alternative Practices for Veterans & their Families

  • cost-effective
  • free of side-effects
  • prevention-based
  • empowering: provide a sense of mastery & control
  • self-administered

Deployments

Couples and families separated by the stress of deployment often deal with a difficult transition after the homecoming: anxiety on both sides (war trauma for the veteran, months of anxiety about the veterans’ well-being for the spouse and family), the stress of finding a job upon return, financial stresses among other difficulties, fidelity problems. Whether you are a veteran of belong to a military family, learning to recognize the inevitable stress of deployment and the natural solutions that can help can make a big difference.

Members of the military embody courage, integrity, selflessness and a deep commitment to service and to protecting those in need. He or she has been trained to kill, to be on guard, to protect, to serve, and to sacrifice. A service member has agreed to stare death in the face so that others don’t have to do so and to sacrifice themselves so someone else can live. Warriors are extraordinary human beings. However, though the military trains them for war, it does not train them for peace. After a long deployment of holding their breath in combat, they no longer know how to breathe with ease in their civilian life. Trained for war, they were never trained for peace.

When War Comes Home

Waiting for your husband, wife, son or daughter to return from war is a huge stress. Worrying about his well-being while taking on the burden of all of his or her former responsibilities around the home can be extremely demanding. Many wives and husbands of deployed service members have to juggle childcare and a job while worrying about their spouse’s well-being and struggling with the loneliness of being companion-less for months at a time, sometimes years. When the service member finally returns,for many the war has only just begun. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, Is often called the “invisible wound of war.” Veterans return with their body intact but in his mind, he has become an invalid. The wounds are “invisible” because they are sometimes hard to detect on the outside. It is often the family that observes the brunt of the inner change that has occurred.

M.S., mother of two, is a 23 year old nurse. Her husband, G.T., is on a deployment to Iraq. His deployment, originally 8 months, has been extended to 16 months. She works long hours including night shifts and struggles to split childcare responsibilities with her mother and a daycare center. She lives for G.T.’s phone calls yet feels far away and disconnected from him when they talk. She cries herself to sleep with loneliness and anxiety over whether he will return. Every time she turns on the news, she cringes at the war accounts she hears and fears her husband may one day be among the victims. Her stress levels are so high that she is taking anti-anxiety medication and has taken up smoking. She has trouble making ends meet and paying for the mortgage because G.T.‘s civilian salary was far higher than his deployment salary. When G.T. finally returns, M.S. cries with joy and relief. She doesn’t yet know that the man she loves has changed.

G.T. is a typical young veteran from Wisconsin. Only 25 years old yet, he has spent 3 years of his life in Iraq over multiple deployments to combat zones. Now back in Madison, he startles at the slightest sound, cannot concentrate at work or night school, is unable to control flashbacks from his time in combat, and cannot sleep because of nightmares from his time in combat. He smokes marijuana and drinks himself into a stupor just for the luxury of a few hours of rest. He has alienated the people he loves the most - his wife and children - because of a rage he cannot control. G.A. also finds that his wife and children have learned to take care of themselves over his last deployment. Simon takes out the trash and mows the lawn, Susi has taken over the laundry, and his wife now balances their finances and pays the bills. G.A. is on disability and feels useless. He wants to connect with his family but finds himself unable to feel any emotions, let alone express love. He picks fights with his wife and worries that his she will leave him for someone else. Terribly alone, G.A., an admired leader in the army, feels useless as a civilian and has thoughts of taking his own life.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD

G.T. has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), like 20% of the 2 million veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that arises after an encounter with a traumatic situation including life-threatening experiences or seeing others get hurt or die. Many veterans have been in horrific combat situations. Many women and some men may also have been the victim of Military Sexual Trauma, having suffered rape by peers during their deployment. The symptoms of PTSD are:

  • hypervigilance, a sense of being on high alert and easily startled by the slightest sound
  • emotional numbness, an inability to feel emotions, especially love
  • intrusive thoughts, memories of past traumas that can lead to debilitating flashbacks during the day and nightmares at night

Side effects of PTSD include: rage, violence, insomnia, alienation, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide. PTSD may be the reason behind an alarming increase in veteran suicides nation-wide. The suicide rate among male veterans aged 18 to 29 years increased by 26% from 2005 to 2007 according to data from the Veterans Administration. While the anxiety and hyper vigilance can be problematic in a job situation, emotional numbness and short-temperedness can often interfere with relationships, creating a greater sense of alienation from one’s spouse and family, and recurring thoughts and nightmares can disrupt the veterans’ ability to work and to sleep. Sometimes the anxiety drives the veteran to drink or take drugs such as marijuana and to withdraw from others as well as from public places.

Coupled with PTSD, a veteran will face other challenges returning home: his or her job may have been given to someone else, spouses may have met other people, families have learned to cope without the veteran, leaving him or her to feel useless. Combat is also an extremely thrilling experience and creates a “high” that the veteran may crave upon returning home. They may find civilian life extremely boring seek this high in other peak experiences from drugs to speeding on a motorcycle and other risky behaviors. Finally, on a deployment an extremely tight bond develops between members of a military unit. Shad Meshad of the National Veterans Foundation describes the bond that is built on a battlefield in which you are looking out for each other’s life as perhaps the strongest bond you can establish with anyone. Upon return to civilian life, the veteran may crave that connection and not be able to feel it even with his or her spouse. Finally, veterans can deal with survival guilt and the grief of having lost comrades.

Many veterans feel so out of place upon their return to civilian life that they desire only one thing: to return to the battlefield. They may not be happy there but, at least, it is a world that they know and in which they have learned to live and cope.

Traditional treatment for PTSD

For veterans who are struggling with post-traumatic stress, the therapies that are available are exposure therapy and drug therapy. Exposure therapy involves recounting and remembering a traumatic event many times in the hopes that it loses its impact. For many veterans, this exercise is extremely difficult. The FDA-approved drugs for PTSD are currently SSRI’s or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (like prozac). Research suggests, however, that these drugs may not be effective for veterans. A recent study shows that, of those veterans that actually complete either course of treatment, only 50% recover. There is obviously room for improvement and alternatives to these more traditional treatments.

Natural Solutions

The good news is that research is showing that more natural approaches such as complementary and alternative interventions can help alleviate PTSD symptoms. An approach to trauma that incorporates the body seems to be essential and therapists often teach their patients to use the breath. Our research at the University of Wisconsin shows that yoga and breath-based interventions can helpful in reducing symptoms of PTSD, anxiety and insomnia. These therapies are also empowering to the veteran who, rather than depending on a therapist or drug, learns that he can calm and soothe his mind himself through the techniques he has learned.

We often associate being energetic with anxiety and being calm with lethargy. However, through yoga, breathing and meditation practices, you may experience a mind that is both calm and alert, an ideal state whether dealing with work, relationships, or family. Especially in our fast-paced, technology driven world (email, text messages, cell phones, social networks, television), it is sometimes rare to have a moment that is quiet, peaceful and devoid of noise and stimulation. In fact we can sometimes get addicted to stimulation. However, taking time to be quiet and to rest our busy minds can lead to great benefits in the rest of our lives. Like a shower to cleanse our body, these practices are a mental hygiene that helps us keep a fresh and clear perspective.

If you or your spouse has entered the military, they are also not the type of person to feel sorry for themselves or who enjoy being dependent on another person such as a therapist or on a drug. Complementary and alternative practices such as yoga, breathing and meditation are empowering a provide a sense of mastery and control because, once learned, you can practice them yourself without relying on anyone else.

Yoga

Many veterans return with chronic pain issues as well as anxiety. Research on yoga suggests that, in conjunction with traditional therapy, yoga may help improve certain conditions such as back pain, knee osteoarthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome. It may also help improve balance, flexibility and muscle tone. Because of its emphasis on stretching and relaxing, yoga may help otherwise agitated people to settle down. Finally, for those with high anxiety, yoga and especially “yoga nidra” or “yogic sleep” which is practiced laying down may be a good way to calm down. yoga: http://www.spiritualityhealth.com/magazine/2010-september-october/shift-your-body-change-your-mind.html

Yogic Breathing

“Slowing down and take a deep breath.” These are words we commonly say. There is a lot of wisdom and now research behind these words. Yoga-based breathing exercises have been shown to decrease stress, boost immune function (probably as a result of decreased stress), reduce anxiety, depression and blood pressure, and benefit pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. In particular, breathing practices such as pranayama and sudarshan kriya, by relaxing the body, may help with the processing of traumatic experiences. One of the veterans in our study said that, although he remembers what happened to him in the past, has now made peace with those events and can see himself as a new person who can continue on with his life. The science of breathing: http://www.spiritualityhealth.com/magazine/2010-march-april/the-case-for-yogic-breathing.html.

One of the veterans from my study on yoga breathing for veterans at the University of Wisconsin often feels anxious in crowded restaurants. The last time he went out to a diner with his wife and children, he felt anxiety arising and simply slipped out to the parking lot to practice some alternate nostril breathing. After it helped him calm down, he was able to return to the restaurant and continue enjoying his Sunday brunch with his family.

Meditation

Meditation has been shown to decrease stress, increase well-being, decrease pain or at least improve our relationship with pain, and increase certain mental faculties such as our ability to pay attention and to regulate our emotions. Meditation may not be a first step for someone suffering from high anxiety but, as the body begins to settle down with yogic breathing and yoga, meditation often becomes a beloved place of rest, rejuvenation, and tranquility. We constantly direct our senses outwardly: watching, listening, and engaging with the world. We often forget to rest our mind and to resource ourselves. Practicing meditation can be likened to a gas station or a phone charger. You sit and do nothing for a while to refill your tank or recharge your battery. With a peaceful mind, you can then go out into the world with a fresh perspective, a calmer outlook, and more energy.

Service

A growing body of research now shows that engaging in service is beneficial not only for physical but also for mental health. Veterans in particular have a strong spirit of service for they are ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for others. Upon their return, however, they often feel that they have lost a sense of purpose. Their family has gone on without them or, if they are single, they no longer feel connected to a cause. Reconnecting to community service can often be a huge boost to self-esteem and a sense of meaning in their lives.

Service also allows veterans to find that “high” that they once felt on the battlefield. An incredible rush of adrenaline comes in combat and many veterans miss that sense of excitement. Engaging in community service and witnessing others benefit from our actions leads to a similar sense of well-being and elation but in a sustained, contained, and healthy manner. Rather than engaging in high-risk behaviors such as speeding on a motorcycle, helping others is a constructive and deeply enriching way to increase your well-being.

scientific benefits of service: http://www.spiritualityhealth.com/magazine/2010-november-december/indulging-the-totally-selfish-joys-of-selfless-giving.html.

Spirituality

Research suggests that there are two preventative factors for PTSD: one is a strong spiritual life and the other is a strong and supportive family. A spiritual life may give someone faith and a certain perspective that can help him or her cope with difficult situations. Prayer and spiritual practice may help the veteran cope while out in the field. Many veterans return from the field with a stronger connection to spirituality because of close encounters with death. Many of the veterans I have interviewed spoke of instances in which they felt they had been protected and narrowly escaped danger. Spirituality may have preventative value but can also help a veteran begin to cope and make sense of the things that have happened to him or her. Spiritual and religious communities discuss questions that are often absent in everyday life like the meaning of life, explore wisdom, and encourage a spirit of service. Making time to think about these questions can help a veteran begin to make sense of his or her experiences.

Love

Decades of research indicates that social Connectedness is a fundamental human need. One study suggests that a feeling of disconnect and loneliness is as bad for our health as smoking and obesity. We all have a strong need for connection. For men in particular, being married correlates with a longer life. Men often do not have the same amount of quality of affectionate friendships as women have. The very masculine and alpha-male culture of the military, in particular, does not make much room for affection. For that reason, men in the military in particular will look to their wives or girlfriends as a source of affection. A marriage can be a life-saving and healing place for a returning veteran.

For the wife, veteran or mother who is welcoming her service member home, it is important to remember that they may be emotionally distant on their return. They have learned to shut off emotions to be strong in the battlefield. They may have shut off their emotions as a coping mechanism to deal with the traumatic events they have experienced. They might have shut off their emotions because the military does not encourage vulnerability. Understanding this phenomenon and allowing the service member to slowly ease back into civilian life will help the relationship.

In our study with yoga breathing for veterans, Travis Leanna, an Iraq veteran started to feel emotions again after many years. “For years I was going through life without emotions. There were a couple of suicides in the family and I didn’t even react. I went through a number of failed relationships and wondered why I wasn’t connecting. After doing the yoga breathing I started to feel positive emotions, negative emotions, I was amazed, I could finally feel.” The veteran may have to go through the process of “returning to life” and experiencing parts of him or herself as if for the first time, for example the ability to experience emotions. When you shut part of yourself off, it is hard to turn it back on.

Sometimes couples need to rebuild their relationship after the long separation of deployment. Remembering the key aspects of a successful relationship such as affectionate behavior, appreciation for each other’s strengths and gratitude are essential. long-term love for Scientific American Mind: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=discovering-secrets-long-term-love.

Self-Compassion

Our culture is one of perfectionism. We strive for ideals and members of the military may do so more than most. In order to live a life of service and sacrifice, you naturally strive to be the best that you can be. However, sometimes high expectations for ourselves can lead to high self-criticism. Research is showing that self-criticism is not only unhealthy but can actually lead to greater levels of anxiety and depression. Instead, a new wave of research is showing that self-compassion leads to more positive results. Self-compassion has three elements: 1) the ability to evaluate ourselves objectively without beating ourselves up, 2) treating ourselves with kindness and understanding (why should we treat ourselves differently than we would a dear friend?), 3) understanding that imperfections we see within ourselves also exist in others, that no one is perfect, and that we all experience difficulties. Brene brown works with veterans and has noticed that they are often very hard on themselves and have not allowed themselves to be vulnerable and self-accepting. Self-compassion, in her eyes, is an important path to healing. Article on self-compassion at: http://www.spiritualityhealth.com/magazine/2011-sept-oct/self-compassion.html.

Before The Deployment

If you are a warrior about to deploy, learn to compartmentalize your life. In the military, you play the role that is assigned to you but remember that there is another layer to you that is emotional, vulnerable, affectionate, scared and that needs love. We all have this layer, it makes us human. However, as a marine or soldier, you are being paid to not be vulnerable. Compartmentalizing your life may help you stay whole, suggests Brene Brown, professor at the University of Houston. Though you live and breathe the warrior ethos with your unit, remember to make room for the other side of yourself in your letters home, your emails, your phone calls. It’s not only ok but important to be soft, to be emotional, to be vulnerable and to be yourself with your near and dear ones. In this way, you will not only help maintain an intimate relationship with your relatives back home, but you will also create space for the other parts of yourself to exist without shutting them off. You will be healthier in the field and also able to reintegrate much more easily into civilian life. Moreover, allowing your vulnerable side to exist will allow you to be more present with your fellow marines or soldiers. After all, they need you as well and your friendship can support them in ways you cannot even imagine. Some of your fellow soldiers and marines may not have anyone to talk to back at home and will find true solace in someone that is open, natural, and understanding. [Link to Brene Brown: http://www.brenebrown.com/)

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