June 27 is PTSD Awareness Day

by: FHE Admin

Each day, 7.7 million American adults live with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Research shows that approximately 7 percent of all civilians experience PTSD at some point. For returning military veterans, depending on the combat theater, that number jumps as high as 30 percent (click for full PDF of the 2013 congressional study). Tragically, statistics show the suicide rate among active duty military service members is one per day, while among veterans the suicide rate is about one per hour. These startling statistics expose the frightening reality that among the military's active-duty population there are more casualties attributable to suicide than to combat.

In a very real way, PTSD can be seen as the greatest threat to the lives of America's combat warriors. They may leave the battlefield, but the battle is very often still raging inside. As a United States Marine, I made a vow to never leave anyone behind. I continue to honor that promise by reaching out to my fellow brothers and sisters in arms, walking with them off the battlefield and back into life. I do this as a trauma therapist for the Veteran's Administration (VA), serving returning combat veterans with PTSD who are struggling to engage life.

Decades of efforts have paved the way for current treatments and incredible progress has been made. Treatments have primarily been: 1) the use of cognitive therapies to change thought patterns and 2) medication to alter the chemistry and/or functioning of the brain. However, PTSD can present quite differently in each individual and is often very resistant to treatment. In many cases I found traditional treatments to be minimally helpful; often my veterans were not necessarily getting better, but instead were becoming better at managing symptoms. I did not want PTSD to be managed, I wanted it to go away. I had found my new mission.

I sought other approaches and was led to experiential modalities that naturally flowed into somatic therapies. My training with somatically oriented clinicians, such as Peter A. Levine, PhD; Dr. Bessel van der Kolk; and Dr. Pat Ogden, has proven to be invaluable in my clinical work with combat veterans. I began to incorporate practices utilizing sound, mindfulness, meditation, touch, and movement in my individual and group sessions. This was not easy at first.

My first session to “go astray” was with a frequently dissociated Vietnam vet who sat across from me, week after week: arms folded tightly across his chest, eyes locked blankly on me, and legs planted in place. I suggested we play catch. His eyes widened, “What? You wanna do what? Why would we do that?”

“I dunno,” I replied, “to see what happens.” Quite a bit did indeed happen that session while we talked, tossed, and tracked. His dissociation decreased as movement entered into the immobility of trauma. He wasn't numb and empty as he had claimed to be. He was filled with sensations, emotions, and story— his body told that story.

I continued to implement and adapt the work to fit with my vets (and with the various layers of training, culture, and complexity that comprise the multifaceted nature of combat trauma). I began using “shoulder dancing,” a non-threatening and small movement that serves as an entry point to an area that often houses a tremendous amount of story (trauma). Focusing on the sensations and movement proved to be easier and more effective than focusing on the rage and terror of the trauma. Through this work, the body becomes an ally rather than the storage vessel for the chaos and trauma that had been collected in a combat theater. I see my veterans reinhabiting their bodies with a reclaimed ownership of their minds and I witness a long overdue homecoming, as they take back and return to their lives.

As we take this day to recognize PTSD and work to create awareness of this haunting and often debilitating disorder, we are faced with the daunting statistics which surround PTSD. It is imperative that communities know what PTSD is and how it may look, especially for returning warriors who already face the challenge of readjusting to a civilian way of life. However, we must also create awareness of the available treatments for our veterans including the emerging (or reemerging) approaches that seek wholeness through the mind and embodied living. The body is being rediscovered by the research community and more and more clinicians are incorporating mindfulness-based practices. Eastern and Western approaches are becoming allies in batting an enemy neither can subdue on their own.

The good news is that VA hospitals and residential facilities are part of the growing groups incorporating more holistic approaches to treatment plans. Together, researchers, clinicians, and community groups are bringing our servicemen and women home, in body and in mind. It is my hope that we bring this awareness to our community and to the veterans who have committed their life to protect ours. Today, we are not only aware of trauma and the chaos it can leave in its wake, but we recognize the possibility of wholeness, of betterment, and of the return to life beyond the trauma.

Author of this entry, a USMC vetAuthor Vanessa Hughes is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, having served as a firefighter both in the military and as a civilian. Today she is an MFT (marriage and family therapist) with the VA, treating returning combat veterans with PTSD. She is pursuing her doctorate in clinical psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary Graduate School of Psychology, emphasizing neuropsychology and intercultural studies. Her areas of research include trauma-related hypoarousal and dissociation among veterans. She is creating a systematic therapeutic approach to PTSD which incorporates somatic therapies— including Somatic Experiencing®, yoga, movement, and dance— along with other state of the art and empirically validated treatments. Vanessa is married to a Presbyterian pastor and they have four boys aged 7, 6, 4, and 2 years old.

Photo of Brandon Lund, USMC copyright Bronte Wittpenn, used with permission (all rights reserved by the photographer).

Comments (13)
  1. Robin Johnson

    What a great article. I am thrilled to see that the military is starting to embrace holistic therapies. I have been married to a Vietnam Veteran for 6 years. He was diagnosed with PTSD 3 years ago. His behavior has been in the extreme category for the entire marriage. We have to have an answer for our Veterans. They deserve to have their life back, and to be fully functional, as well as their families.

    1. Vanessa Hughes

      Thank you for your comment and I thank your husband for his service and welcome him home. I am not sure if he has been connected to treatment, but in case he has not, here are a couple routes for him. First, there is a list of SE practitioners that I would direct him to. http://www.traumahealing.com/somatic-experiencing/practitioner-directory.html There are many practioners who have plenty of experience working with combat PTSD.
      Another option is finding a Vet Center in your area. http://www.va.gov/directory/guide/vetcenter_flsh.asp
      Vet Centers tend to have more leeway room with incorporating various treatments and also are able to work with couples, spouses and families. I hope this is helpful.

  2. Hi Vanessa-
    I feel a desire to work with veterans myself. I’m s Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, Certified Core Energetics Therapist and Interfaith Minister of Spiritual Counseling. However, I’m not licensed to practice psychotherapy. Do you have a suggestion about who or how I could approach VA institutions to try to help the vets?
    Thanks for any guidance you can give me. Warmly, Diana

    1. Vanessa Hughes

      Thanks for your interest and your comment! There are a few ways to get involved. Calling your nearest VA and speaking to Volunteer Services may be a good starting point. Additionally, searching local PTSD treatment facilities may prove to be beneficial as many residential and outpatient facilities utilize various treatments. There are also many churches and community groups creating opportunities for Vets to reengage the community and I am sure your gifting would be welcomed. Thanks for your heart for our Veterans!

  3. Moreen Halmo

    So heartened to hear somatic experiencing and the work of P. Ogden, P. Levine, B Van der Kolk is being incorporated into helping our vets heal and hopefully recover parts of themselves. I am a Psychologist and use it with patients who have early childhood trauma. It is very helpful. Would love to volunteer some time to work with vets.

    1. Vanessa Hughes

      Yes, I am pleased as well. Give an Hour may be a good place to start. Their website is http://www.giveanhour.org. VA therapists use this site as it is a good way to supplement the care Veterans get with the VA. It also allows the family to get treatment as we know the family is affected by the trauma of the Veteran as well. It is also a great way for veterans who don’t “qualify” for VA services to still get much needed treatment. This is also how I connect contract warriors (who are often prior service) to the treatment they need to therapists who accept them as clients. You are able to create a profile and specify your location and specialization. You may also explore some of the options I mentioed in the post above. I hope this leads to good connection and good healing!

  4. Hi Vanessa….

    This is so wonderful to read. I’m now an Equine Facilitated Learning instructor and coach who is working with veterans and am about to embark on the SE training here in CT. I’m so pleased to understand more about how you use the SE as part of other things. It became clear to me that working with horses (all in exercises on the ground) is about unlocking emotional numbness through the unique movements associated with leading, grooming and connecting with horses. The stories start to unwind as well as vets begin to realize that they have choices and that they CAN relax, stay engage and relate to others in their lives in a different way. Our goal is to accelerate the readjustment process to civilian life and thank goodness the VA and Vet Centers here are opening their doors to complementary therapies/approaches. If we can gain some ground and scale this work up, I hope we’ll be able to help vets and their families all over the country. Collaboration and combining techniques seems to be essential – as treating symptoms certainly does seem to have a very short life. All the best….Jane

    1. Vanessa Hughes

      Well, you will be likely be ahead of the game in terms of your social engagement and limbic understanding. SE will give you more tools to enable your Vets to integrate what your majestic animals aid in unlocking! I would love to have you post back later and share how your SE work intersects with your equine work.


  5. Hi, Vanessa.

    I really appreciate your informative, yet approachable post. I want to tip my hat to you as a neighbor, as well. I share an office in Long Beach, CA with two other SE practitioners. We are having a free Feldenkrais/ Anat Baniel Method clinic for veterans on July 13, 12-7. The approach involves gentle touch to reduce chronic muscle contractions and better map the skeleton in the brain. This mapping is especially useful in learning to use reconstructed and prosthetic limbs. All in a trauma-informed context. Thanks for introducing Give An Hour. If there are any local veterans groups I should contact, please let me know. Many thanks and best wishes, Sonya

  6. Nancy

    Dear Vanessa,

    So good to read your blog post. My name is Nancy and I’m an SEP working at the Asheville, NC- VA. I would love to be able to connect with you further on how you are bringing SE into the VA you work at. I, along with another SEP I work with, have started groups for veterans and staff, which have been working out really well.
    Anyhow, would love to connect further if you are able.

    All the best,

  7. Kari Taylor-Evans

    Thank you for your service and bringing these approaches to Veterans. I also work at a VA and have compled the SE training. I facilitate a group utilizing these principles for Veterans with PTSD. I am also interested in connecting with other VA professionals who utilize SE with their clients. I work at the St. Cloud MN, VAMC.

  8. I am a Canadian, a Paramedic (Critical Care Flight) and an RRT (ICU’s x 12 years in addition) .. with over 35 years in the field .. our rate of PTSD is up to 33 % according to the temacontra center. We suffer in silence because of the cultural perspective in EMS . I feel extremely sad when a “Military Vet” is thanked for their service and recognized but we EMS providers (who in fact deal with far more tragic cases on a daily bases) but are the forgotten few, and this website testimony to that …

    1. Vanessa Hughes

      Thank you for your post. I apologize for the late reply, I didn’t see it until now. Your post speaks to something very true. I am actually quite familiar with this culture having lived it as a firefighter in both the USMC and as a civilian. First responder culture is indeed similar to military culture in many ways- including the stigma surrounding PTSD. Some of my beginning work with trauma was primarily with fellow first responders. As you mentioned, first responders are exposed to very tragic cases and often do so on a regular basis over many years. Some good news: We have not forgotten you. All SE practitioners are trained to work with the various traumatic events and responses. This includes horror and vicarious trauma. In addition, there are practitioners within the SE community who specialize in working with first responders, humanitarian aid workers, mass disaster relief, and other rescue personnel who struggle with what they encountered while rescuing others. On the homepage you will see a link to help you find a practitioner, including practitioners in Canada. I hope this helps….and thank you for your service.

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