“Military guys doing yoga and meditation?” I’ve been asked in disbelief. It’s true that when they first arrived to participate in my study (a yoga-based breathing program offered by a small non-profit organization), the young, tattoo-covered, hard-drinking, motorcycle-driving all-American Midwestern men didn’t look like your typical yoga devotees. But their words after the study said it all: “Thank you for giving me my life back” and “I feel like I’ve been dead since I returned from Iraq and I feel like I’m alive again.” Our surprisingly positive findings revealed the power that lies in breath for providing relief from even the most deep-seated forms of anxiety.
As many of us know, there is an unspoken epidemic that is taking 22 lives a day in the U.S.
Who is impacted? Those who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in protection of others: Veterans.
Why? War trauma.
Average age? 25.
After a long deployment of holding their breath in combat, these men and women often return to civilian life no longer knowing how to breathe. Though the military trains service members for war, it doesn’t train them for peace. Ready to give up their life for others, service members embody the values of courage, integrity, selflessness, and a deep commitment to serving. They’ve trained under extreme conditions to do things most civilians don’t encounter: lose parts of their body, kill or injure another human being under orders or by mistake, get right back to work and keep fighting hours after seeing a friend killed, be separated from families and loved ones for months and even years, and live with the horrendous physical and emotional consequences thereof upon their return home.
The National Institutes of Health estimates that 20-30 percent of the over 2 million returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This anxiety disorder involves hyper-alertness that prevents sleep and severely interferes with daily life, triggers painful flashbacks during the day and nightmares at night, and causes emotional numbness that leads to social withdrawal and an inability to relate to others. Side effects of PTSD include rage, violence, insomnia, alienation, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. PTSD symptoms are associated with higher risk of suicide, a fact that may explain the alarming rise in suicidal behavior amongst returning veterans.
While traditional treatments work for some, a large number of veterans are falling through the cracks. Dropout rates for therapy and drug treatments remain as high as 62 percent for veterans with PTSD. Symptoms can persist even for veterans who actually undergo an entire course of psychotherapeutic treatment and drug treatment results are mixed.
Our research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Stanford showed that the week-long Project Welcome Home Troops intervention was successful, with our analyses showing significant decreases in PTSD and anxiety. Improvements remained one month and one year later, suggesting long-term benefit. More telling even than the data are the veterans’ words; with a veteran of the war in Afghanistan writing:
A few weeks ago shooting, cars exploding, screaming, death, that was your world. Now back home, no one knows what it is like over there so no one knows how to help you get back your normalcy. They label you a victim of the war. I AM NOT A VICTIM… but how do I get back my normalcy? For most of us it is booze and Ambien. It works for a brief period then it takes over your life. Until this study, I could not find the right help for me, BREATH’ing like a champ!
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