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Want to Try Non-Chemical Coping Activities for Veterans with PTSD?

By Patrick Bailey

 Wartime service epitomizes courage and solidarity, but some soldiers encounter negative consequences in victory or peace. Some veterans return from their service dealing with serious mental health conditions.

 One such condition is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that occurs after people experience or witness trauma. The problem of PTSD is not only a challenge to returning veterans but also their families and relatives as well as the government. After living military life, some veterans may have a difficult time readjusting to civilian life. Others may feel on edge or feel disconnected and emotionally numb.

Both veterans and their family members or friends need to understand how to deal with the situation. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), veteran suicide is a national concern. More than 6,000 veterans took their lives every year in the period from 2008 to 2016.

Why Veterans Experience Mental Problems Like PTSD

 Also known as combat stress or shell shock, PTSD occurs when a person experiences a serious trauma or event that is life-threatening. People who witness life-threatening events may also have PTSD.

It is normal for the body to experience shock when a person encounters an life-threatening event. But if the nervous system does not to return to normal and continues to react long after the initial threat has passed, a person may have PTSD.

Individuals may experience PTSD symptoms a few hours or days after experiencing a traumatizing event. Sometimes, the symptoms do not appear for months or years after returning from war.

 A person with PTSD may have intrusive reminders of war or a traumatic event in the form of nightmares, distressing thoughts, or flashbacks. PTSD may make a person feel as though the event is occurring again. When reacting to those traumatic life events, people may experience physical and emotional reactions such as uncontrollable shaking, panic attacks, and heart palpitations.

To cope with PTSD, individuals sometimes avoid things that make them recall the traumatic events. They may withdraw from places, situations, people, or thoughts that they associate with bad memories. Unfortunately, such avoidance may also lead veterans to withdraw from living a full life.

 Personality changes may also accompany PTSD. People with the condition may experience negative changes in their thoughts as well as their moods. They may have exaggerated negative beliefs and persistent feelings of guilt, shame, or fear. Individuals with PTSD may display anger or other emotional reactions, have difficulty sleeping, or engage in reckless behaviors. Some may turn to using drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms.

How Veterans May Cope with PTSD

If you have PTSD, you may want to get moving. Exercise may burn off adrenaline that causes anxiety. It may release endorphins to improve an individual’s mood. Physical activity may also help the body and mind become unstuck from the immobilization stress response.

 Participating in outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, skiing, and whitewater rafting may also be helpful to veterans and others. Or, people may want to consider participating in activities that include rhythmic movements that engage various parts of the body, such as swimming, running, dancing, or basketball. When exercising, try to focus on sensations of your body, such as your feet hitting the ground as you run or your breathing as you inhale and exhale.

Since PTSD may overwhelm your nervous system, you may feel helpless and vulnerable.  Exercise and breathing exercises may be good ways to regulate your nervous system and conquer your feelings of anxiousness, agitation, and powerlessness. In situations that weaken your control of the nervous system, consider practicing mindful breathing. Focusing on your inhalation and exhalation may help relax you and help you feel that you have more control.

Speaking of control, controlling and paying attention to sensory inputs may also fight PTSD. Some sensory inputs may make you feel that you are fighting in a combat zone again. But other sensory inputs may calm you down. For example, hearing loud noises may make you flash back to war zones, but listening to favorite music may pull you away from such feelings.

 You need to explore which sensory inputs work for you. If you are a veteran, think back to the days you were deployed and recall what provided comfort after a day of fighting. Maybe it was the sound of a song or the smell of a certain type of soap.

When you return from service, try not to disconnect from other people. This is a common behavior for people with PTSD, but it prolongs their suffering. While it is good to connect with other people face-to-face, it does not necessarily mean that you have to talk. There may be times you want to talk and other times you do not want to talk, and both situations are fine.

 The people you connect with should be able to listen to you and spend time with you without judging your behavior. You may be experiencing different mood changes, but this does not mean that others should judge you. They need to try to understand your situation. You may also volunteer and reach out to people in need. Reaching out may help you connect with others and help you reclaim your sense of power and self-esteem.

PTSD Support

A PTSD support group may be a good way to connect with others. You may join a group of veterans who have been facing similar situations to learn how they have managed to cope with their own symptoms.

Meeting with others may help you address your mental health. When connecting with other people or civilians, you do not have to give full accounts of traumatic events. It is not necessary that you have to reveal the details of your life to everyone. You can just talk about how you are feeling.

 Let other people know what you really need from them and how they may help you. It will help them understand your emotional experience and how they may assist you. If connecting has become difficult, you may want to engage in exercises and vocal toning before you meet and talk with others. Vocal toning is a practice that uses sounds to affect mood.

Taking care of your body is also important. The anger, lack of sleep, poor concentration, and emotional changes related to PTSD may be impacting your physical and mental health. You may use yoga, massages, and meditation to reduce stress and ease depression and anxiety symptoms. Running or pounding on a punching bag may also help you.

 A healthy diet is also a good tool to fight PTSD. Incorporate foods such as flaxseed, fatty fish, and walnuts into your diet, because they contain omega-3 fatty acids that may assist with emotional health.

Adequate sleep may also help calm your body and mind. Before you go to sleep, do something that is relaxing. You may want to read something, take a hot shower, or listen to some calming music.

Avoid using drugs or consuming alcohol to fall asleep. It may be easy for veterans with PTSD to use drugs and drink alcohol to try to find sleep and erase painful memories. But abusing substances such as nicotine, developing a phenol drug habit, and indulging in other drugs and alcohol may make PTSD symptoms worse. If drugs and alcohol are becoming a habit, you need to seek help.

Many veterans die because they do not ask for help. Many veterans take their lives without seeking assistance, but those who seek help are less likely to do so. Assistance may be at the individual level, group level, or community level, or may be at hospitals and rehab centers. People with PTSD should know that help is out there.

In the Spotlight



University of Maryland offers a psychology degree with emphasis in PTSD.

PTSD Treatment Options Can Work with Help from My HealtheVet


June is PTSD Awareness Month, a good time to stop and consider what type of help Veterans may need. PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault.

If you have PTSD, you might also have other health problems, such as depression or traumatic brain injury (TBI), problems with abusing drugs, or other physical health issues.

Whether you are getting treatment for PTSD or PTSD and one of these conditions, you need a way to keep track of appointments, medications, and sometimes vital signs. You will also need to have regular communication with your health care team.

My HealtheVet helps Veterans with PTSD manage their health care, access their records, and talk to their providers by logging in with a Premium account.

Army Veteran Jerry Tyler has been using My HealtheVet for several years, and even more since he started therapy for PTSD. “I use Secure Messaging to ask about medication refills, and even to ask about appointments,” Tyler said. “Mostly I would rather send a secure message than talk on the phone.”

Veterans receiving treatment for PTSD often find using Secure Messaging to be a safe and secure way to communicate with therapists, doctors, and other members of the health care team. When you have questions about medications or treatment, you can more easily follow up with your doctor. You won’t have to worry about getting bounced around on the phone.

Air Force Veteran Kenyon Campbell started using Secure Messaging after he took the PTSD screen. “I had TBI after a tour in Iraq, and I wasn’t sure if I had PTSD, but I had symptoms that were upsetting me,” Campbell said. “I signed up for My HealtheVet awhile back and saw an article in the health library about PTSD and thought I would check it out. Shortly after answering the questions I sent a Secure Message to my provider to ask for a mental health referral.” Campbell said. “My advice to anyone is to sign up for Secure Messaging. It’s so much easier than calling.”

There are many resources available for Veterans with PTSD. One of the newest online tools from the National Center for PTSD is the PTSD Treatment Decision Aid.

The Decision Aid helps Veterans and family members learn about effective PTSD treatment options, compare different PTSD treatments, and read or watch videos about treatments and how they work. Veterans can build a chart to compare treatments they like most, and at the end print out a personalized summary they can share with their health care providers.

Read More

PTSD screening tool (My HealtheVet)

Mobile Apps for PTSD (VA)

PTSD Treatment Decision Aid (VA)

National Center for PTSD



How often does military sexual assault occur?  “The annual incidence of experiencing sexual assault is 3% among active duty women and 1% among active duty men. Sexual coercion (e.g., quid pro quo promises of job benefits or threats of job loss) and unwanted sexual attention (e.g., touching, fondling, or threatening attempts to initiate a sexual relationship)occur at an annual rate of 8% and 27%, respectively, among women and 1% and 5% among men. Research on deployment stress finds that such experiences constitute important duty-related hazards.”

Source: American Journal of Public Health|December 2007, Vol 97, No. 12 “The Veterans Health Administration and Military Sexual Trauma,”  by Rachel Kimerling, PhD, Kristian Gima, BA, Mark W. Smith, PhD, Amy Street, PhD, and Susan Frayne, MD, MPH

What is the impact of military sexual assault on health?  A system-wide study of VA patients concluded that sexual assault was positively correlated to all categories of mental health co-morbidities, including posttraumatic stress disorder for both men and women at a 99% confidence interval. Associations with other medical comorbidities (e.g., chronic pulmonarydisease, liver disease, and for women, weight conditions) were also observed. Significant gender differences emerged.

Source: American Journal of Public Health|December 2007, Vol 97, No. 12 “The Veterans Health Administration and Military Sexual Trauma,”  by Rachel Kimerling, PhD, Kristian Gima, BA, Mark W. Smith, PhD, Amy Street, PhD, and Susan Frayne, MD, MPH

Healing PTSD: Any Way We Can

Although many soldiers returning home from tours of duty reintegrate into civilian society relatively well, other veterans may encounter significant obstacles to leading a normal civilian life. The challenges are myriad. For instance, “the younger, post-9/11 veteran unemployment rate [in October 2013] was 10 percent, and this is not a one-time spike,” reports Forbes, noting that veteran unemployment has been consistently higher than civilian unemployment for the last four years, due to factors including youth and lack of experience, employers who insist on duplicating training already completed in the military (such as IT training), and social stigma.

The combination of lack of employment opportunities, weakened family and social ties, and the risk of mental illness and concomitant problems such as substance abuse lead to both a horrifically high suicide rate of “22 deaths per day,” according to the New York Daily News, and a record high in 2013 of nearly 50,000 veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan who were “either homeless or in a federal program aimed at keeping them off the streets,” reports USA Today. Clearly, we are failing as a society to welcome our veterans back with open arms.

Military service has been shown to result in “increased risk of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression, substance abuse, [and] functional impairment in social and employment settings,” reports a study conducted on the mental healthcare usage of returning veterans. While modern veterans are probably more likely to seek mental healthcare than veterans in previous generations, there is also an indication that veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom are particularly affected, even more so than veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, with 17% of soldiers returning from Iraq screening positive for PTSD, generalized anxiety, or depression. While male veterans are more likely to suffer from PTSD, female veteranshave a higher prevalence of depression and military sexual trauma (MST), the latter arising from the extremely high rates of sexual assault and harassment in the military. For women, experience of sexual assault or harassment is thought to have a “larger impact on PTSD symptomatology than combat exposure”, according to a study conducted at the Boston Veteran Affairs Medical Center. PTSD may result in flashbacks, nightmares, and “exaggerated physical and emotional reactions to triggers that remind them of the event,” explains, as well as related symptoms such as panic attacks, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, and exaggerated startle responses. PTSD is commonly associated with depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse.

– Jenni Fitton

Treating PTSD

There are two main options for treating PTSD: medication and therapy. Medications used to treat PTSD include anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, and mood stabilizing drugs, which may be used for a period of between three months and a year, and again if the patient continues to need them or suffers a relapse. Therapy options include techniques to manage anxiety, such as relaxation and deep breathing techniques, as well as cognitive therapy and exposure therapy that help the patient learn to cope with triggers and change their thinking patterns.

Along with the main therapeutic options, there are various complementary therapies that can be used in combination with medication and/or therapy. While mainstream therapy should not be overlooked in favor of complementary treatments, there is growing evidence that therapies such as animal contact and yoga can have a positive effect on recovery. A study conducted with survivors of the 2004 Asian tsunami compared usage of a yoga breathing treatment, yoga breathing treatment in conjunction with exposure therapy, and a control group on a waiting list for treatment, finding that the group using yoga alone improved significantly more than the group with no treatment, although not as much as the group using exposure therapy as well. The study concludes that “yoga breath-based interventions may help relieve psychological distress following mass disasters.” A review study in the journal The Primary Care Companion to CNS Disorderssimilarly found that yoga may be an effective treatment for mental illness. For veterans who do not have access to yoga classes, the deep breathing techniques of yoga, which can be easily practiced at home, may also result in improvement, and online yoga schools – often free of charge – are now widely available. Pet therapy has also been suggested as an effective complementary treatment, as has time spent outdoors, such as gardening or hiking. Seeking therapy dog organizations or other therapy animals can therefore be helpful for veterans suffering from PTSD.

The Veterans’ National Recovery Center for the Homeless and PTSD Distressed is committing to helping veterans pursue any and all treatment options for PTSD, MST, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and all other mental disorders.

– Jenni Fitton