Returning heroes – PTSD

This clip is about soldiers returning from Afghanistan and seeing their dogs for the first time is amazing! Watch this video

I’ve just spent a really happy month in Townsville, North Queensland. Apart from having lovely weather and an abundance of beautiful scenery it is also home to Australia’s army. A chance posting by a friend on Facebook showing the happiness of one dog as his owner returns from service in Afghanistan and a coffee with my mate Kenny got me thinking about how to help returning soldiers. No matter what you think of the rights and wrongs of the Afghan and Iraq campaigns , the returning personnel and their families are heroes. The clip shows just how much love there is for many of our returning heroes.

While there is great sadness for the wrecked lives and wasted years of the Iraqi and Afghan people, there will also be many Americans, Brits, Canadians and Australians who return to empty shattered lives.

During our coffee conversation I thought about all the amputees coming home and also all those who are whole-bodied but might still have had the trauma of seeing roadside bombs rip their mates apart. Such shocks to the sensations slash straight to the core of humanity. To be covered in your best friend’s blood, sweat and shit is such a heightened life experience that it may seem impossible for them to experience the world in a “normal” happy balanced way in the future.

At the same time as the shock, there’s also the loss they feel as they return home and their friends stay on the front line – the sense of guilt at not having to endure the pain any more, the loss of camaraderie, the loss of structure and certainty, the loss of meaning and the loss of hope

Being part of something
Soldiers since Alexander’s time have practiced marching precisely in formation. William McNeil noted as far back as 1941 that something magical happens when you ask people to march together. In studies, people who behave in a synchronised manner with their team members bond closely. Many also report that they feel a part of something bigger. They lose the sense of “I”. The right holistic side of the brain is engaged when we practice in formation. We become more willing to share and sacrifice and feel meaning and contentment.

Mirror neurons fire when we observe those around us behave. For example when I pour a cup of tea and you watch me a part of your brain engages which mimics the action of pouring a cup of tea. So in neural imaging we can observe that area of your brain linked to the physical aspects of raising the tea pot and aiming the tea into a cup being engaged even though you are not actually pouring any tea – you’re just looking at me doing it!  When our physical bodies begin to move in unison our brains become more attuned – we start to think, act and feel in similar ways. This can result in bloodthirsty mobs or transcendental uplift. The mood of a crowd is volatile and contagious.

When we become attuned and crowd like we act as a bee hive. We strive for the common good rather than out of self interest. Returning soldiers may loose this sense of being part of something bigger. People are often more able to deal with hardship and suffering when they feel a part of something. When they are alone they may feel a loss of the feeling of oneness – all they may have to focus on are their aches and pains and memories. Any rehabilitation program should therefore address this loss of connection to something bigger.

There are other ways to reduce the sense of separateness from the world. To feel small and insignificant can bring comfort – knowledge that we have a small but important role to play in how the universe plays out. Research suggests that some of the other ways that universal connection can be enhanced are as follows:

– being in jaw dropping scenery – awe impresses on us our smallness and comparative insignificance. It helps us raise our gaze from our own internal mutterings. It re-bases us and helps us focus on what’s truly important in life
– group exercise – there’s something magical that happens in a yoga class when the mats are aligned and people perform the same yoga posture at the same time – it feels like magical synchronicity
– meditation – when you practice focusing on the breath you disassociate from thought and appreciate that thoughts come and go. You begin to observe a deeper expansive connection
– hallucinogenic drugs – Aztecs used the mushroom Teonanacatl for thousands of years as part of their spiritual practices as have many other indigenous communities. People with depression are now being treated with hallucinogenic drugs in trials
– supporting teams  – being in a crowd – chanting – singing

All these things make us behave like a bee in a hive and make us connect to that which is outside of our thoughts (and problems).

The importance of touch
In addition to the sense of loss from leaving a group returning soldiers are often also plagued by their memories. One amazing feature of human touch is the connection that is has with a vital neurotransmitter, oxytocin. Studies show elevated levels of oxytocin during and after humans touch each other (and animals). Research in this area also reveals heightened levels of interpersonal trust for people with elevated oxytocin levels. In addition Anthony Lane’s study in 2012 suggested people with elevated oxytocin levels are more likely than a control group taking a placebo to share their emotions with other people. This could be really important in getting returning soldiers to start to open up about painful experiences.  In addition, oxytocin has been described as the amnesia drug (Heinrichs et al 2004). Studies indicate it has a role to play in “wiping away” memories. That doesn’t necessarily mean we forget when we touch but elevated oxytocin levels may enable us to see the past with a more optimistic perspective – we can start afresh.

Helping the returning heroes
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs in the US , 11% to 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are suffering from PTSD. Roughly 2,413,000 young Americans have served in the Iraq or Afghanistan war, so far. Between 250,000 and half a million of them may be struggling with PTSD and major depression. Add to this the Brits, Australians and other nationalities and you have a big problem for the young people returning, their families and communities

Looking above its clear that these young heroes need to feel part of something again, to have opportunities to express themselves in their own time and to feel the warmth of human touch.

I started with dogs and that’s where I’ll end. In the US Operation freedom paws is a charity to enable returning vets to work with and train dogs.


Posted on April 27, 2013, in positive psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on ulearn2bu and commented:
    Watch the video if you’re a dog lover

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