We all experience stress; and traumatic stress injuries can create stress in even the most ordinary crevices of your life. Meditation is a way to escape that stress temporarily, which over time can reduce your overall stress response to life.
Most of us think of meditation as sitting cross-legged on a pillow for an hour, and that isn’t very appealing to most of us. But there is a better way to seize control of your stress and anger – by slipping little meditations or “mindfulness activities” into everyday with minimal effort.
We’re probably all getting a little annoyed at the repetitive reminders to “Wash your hands!” right now. So why not turn a mundane task like handwashing into a sneaky meditation trigger?
Here’s a handwashing meditation by Independently Happy:
Don’t be in a hurry to get back to the madness of the world and slow it down! Wash thoroughly and start with a deep breath.
Wet your hands completely before pounding on the pump for soap, find the perfect temperature and notice the sensation of your hands going from dry to wet.
Press the soap dispenser slowly and thoughtfully. Rub your hands together. Watch the lather form, feel the bubbles, watch the foam.
Take time to wash each finger intentionally.
Wrap all the fingers of your right hand around the thumb of your left hand and rotate a few times. Then move to your left index finger. wash each finger slowly, deliberately and mindfully.
Notice the temperature, bubbles and foam on each finger of each hand. That’s ten deliberately washed digits. Then slowly and thoughtfully wring your hands together a final few times.
I have had my mindfulness interrupted a few times by noticing people watching me like I’m some kind of weirdo. It does feel a little awkward washing your hands that way at first. It feels equally weird writing about it.
Mindful hand washing is an excellent mindfulness trigger to sneak three or four meditations into your day.
Sweat lodge ceremonies have been used by traditional Indian healers for hundreds of years to integrate Indian warriors back into the tribe, and it is being used today for a new generation of warriors. In both our Men’s and Women’s Long Programs we facilitate a sweat lodge experience for our clients at Round Lake outside of Vernon, BC led by a qualified Native traditional healer. The article below is a summary taken from National Endowment for the Humanities by Amy Lifson:
Traditionally, the ritual of purification and cleansing in the sweat lodge, a domed enclosure formed of willow branches and cloth exterior, was performed before soldiers went into battle and on their return, before they were reunited with their families. The interior is heated by rocks that have roasted for hours in fire. Once the rocks are brought inside the lodge and the door is closed, the healer pours water on them, like in a sauna, and leads a ceremony that lasts for several hours, using ritual songs and chanting. The sweat lodge was one of four steps that a returning new warrior had to complete: First, they were isolated and cared for apart from the rest of the tribe, then they underwent purification in the sweat lodge, next storytelling of victories and losses, and then a final ceremony to welcome them home.
“Native American traditions recognize that the wound is fundamentally a wound to the soul,” says psychotherapist Edward Tick, founder of the support group Soldier’s Heart. “A spiritual crisis and problem that needs to be responded to with specifically designed healing practices for warriors. And it needs to happen in a tribal context or community context.”
The first psychologist to investigate the use of a sweat ritual as a psychotherapeutic intervention was John P. Wilson, Ph.D. Dr. Wilson is an internationally recognized expert in the field of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who has authored eight books and over 20 articles on traumatic stress syndromes. He is a founding member and past president of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS). Included among his numerous awards and honours are a Presidential Commendation from President Jimmy Carter for his work with Vietnam Veterans.
In 1985, Dr. Wilson incorporated the sweat lodge ceremony as part of a comprehensive treatment program for Vietnam Veteran’s with PTSD and examined how the Native American sweat lodge can function as a form of treatment for anxiety, depression, and stress-related disorders (1989). He explained how sweat rituals work to help people with PTSD, (1989, p. 69-70):
In summary, it appears that the neurophsyiological mechanisms of PTSD may be altered by the sweat lodge ritual in several ways that are theoretically discernable. First, the extreme temperature of the lodge and the conditions present to induce an altered state of consciousness, point to a changed state of neurophysiology in the brain. Catecholaminergic (NE, 5-HT, DA) and cholinergic (Ach, cortisol) levels are reduced to promote a neurological condition that results in a greater balance in the ergotropic and trophotropic subsystems. The psychological and behavioural result is a reduction in both intrusive and avoidance symptoms of PTSD. Specifically, there is a positive mood state; a greater sense of emotional stability and expressiveness; low levels of anger, anxiety, fear, and depression; and an increased sense of well-being that is experienced as being calm and relaxed and having a greatly enhanced sense of ego vitality. More importantly, the traumatized individual is able at this point to begin new forms of integration of previously traumatic affect and imagery. In this way the effect of the ritual is allosteric and a form of natural healing.
- Sauna Times by Stephen, April 22, 2012
With women now serving on the front lines like never before in our nation's history, the military faces the new challenge of understanding the toll combat takes on the female psyche. Combat trauma is common in women; five out of ten women experience a traumatic event. Women tend to experience different traumas than men. While both men and women report the same symptoms of PTSD (hyperarousal, reexperiencing, avoidance, and numbing), some symptoms are more common for women or men.
What is the Difference?
Women are more likely to be jumpy, to have more trouble feeling emotions, and to avoid things that remind them of the trauma than men. Men are more likely to feel angry and to have trouble controlling their anger then women. Women with PTSD are more likely to feel depressed and anxious, while men with PTSD are more likely to have problems with alcohol or drugs. Both women and men who experience PTSD may develop physical health problems.
Why do Women Experience PTSD?
Women in the military are at high risk for exposure to traumatic events, especially during times of war. Although men are more likely to experience combat, a growing number of women are now being exposed to combat. Women in the military are at higher risk for exposure to sexual harassment or sexual assault than men. Future studies are needed to better understand the effects of women's exposure to both combat and sexual assault.
Do More Women than Men Experience PTSD?
Women are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD than men (10% for women and 4% for men). There are a few reasons women might get PTSD more than men:
Not all women who experience a traumatic event develop PTSD. Women are more likely to develop PTSD if they:
Women have a unique experience in the workplace, and particularly in military and police settings where they are a distinct minority. Many women experiencing an operational stress injury will be more comfortable participating in a small group if it is a same gender group. The women in this program will have a unique opportunity to share, learn and be understood by other women who likely have had similar experiences. This connection will be a powerful aspect of recovery and will reduce the social isolation of women suffering from an operational stress injury such as depression or PTSD. The support networks established may well last long after the program is over and may be a source of ongoing support and encouragement.
The program will be planned and conducted by female therapists, and will also have female guest speakers.
As we head into the fall season and the leaves begin to change, it provokes feelings of transition and transformation. This is the time of year when we settle in and routines become more established, the kids go back to school and the summer holidays are over. September is a great time to set clear intentions for the rest of the year and adjust parts of ourselves that may have veered off track during the summer months. Each month of the year has a lesson to teach us, and this September we are focusing on resetting our systems and establishing a routine that encourages proper sleep hygiene that sets us up for success for the rest of the year.
Sleep and mental health are closely connected. Not getting enough sleep or having low quality sleep affects your psychological state and mental health, and those with existing mental health problems such as PTSD are more likely to have insomnia and other sleep disorders (Harvard Medical School, 2019).
The first step in improving sleep is to look at removing things that may negatively affect sleep such as caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, food, drugs (talk to your doctor first), blue lights (television/cell phone screens etc.), and taking a look at medical conditions that may cause insomnia. Examples of medical conditions that can contribute to insomnia include nasal/sinus allergies, GI problems (reflux), endocrine problems, arthritis, asthma, neurological conditions, chronic pain, and lower back pain (National Sleep Foundation, 2019).
We always recommend looking for the root cause of what may be causing your insomnia, and the confounding factors such as lifestyle and stress. Typically sleep disturbances are caused by a myriad of things, with the underlying cause being a body and mind that are not in optimal health. Sometimes a lifestyle revamp is needed to truly make a lasting difference in the quality of your sleep and your life.
A few natural methods of treating insomnia and chronic lack of sleep include:
Meditation and Relaxation Techniques
Helpful by promoting slower breathing and reducing stress hormone levels. Meditation is a technique that involves consciously directing one's attention to an object of focus (such as breathing or a sound or word) in order to increase awareness, relax the body, and calm the mind. Some types of meditation include guided meditation, vipassana meditation, yoga nidra, or body scan (Wong, 2019).
It’s no secret being physically tired helps us get a better sleep, most of the time. Pushing yourself to commit to a fitness routine has huge benefits for your sleep, mental health, and physical health. Even going for a 30 minute walk every day counts! Movement is vital in your journey to recovering, studies even show that exercise can treat moderate depression as effectively as an antidepressant medication – without any negative side effects! As one example, a recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26% (Robinson, Segal, Smith, 2019).
Using red light and near-infrared technology has also been clinically proven to enhance natural melatonin production, which is preferable to taking a synthetic melatonin hormone but can also be used in conjunction (Joovv). Red light therapy mimics the morning sun/candle flame/moonlight/sunrise and sunset in terms of colour temperature measured in Kelvin (K). Humans aren’t getting enough red light as we spend too much time indoors, which negatively affects our general wellbeing and sleep. In 2014, a study on the cognitive function of people with traumatic brain injury (TBI) found that participants not only significantly improved cognitive function and saw decreased episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they also reported improved sleep (Journal of Neurotrauma, 2014).
Wishing you a restful September!
Dr. Tina Rochford & the team at OSR
Naeser MA, Zafonte R, et al. “Significant improvements in cognitive performance post-transcranial, red/near-infrared light-emitting diode treatments in chronic, mild traumatic brain injury: open-protocol study.” Journal of Neurotrauma. 2014 Jun 1;31(11):1008-17.
PTSD and Somatic Symptoms
Understanding and treating PTSD can often improve the outcome of chronic disease, such as GI tract problems and heart disease. Anxiety is a reaction to stress that has both psychological and physical features. Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety, phobias, social anxiety, PTSD, OCD, panic disorder, etc. The feeling is thought to arise in the amygdala, a brain region that governs many intense emotional responses. As neurotransmitters carry the impulse to the sympathetic nervous system, heart and breathing rates increase, muscles tense, and blood flow is diverted from the abdominal organs to the brain. In the short term, anxiety prepares us to confront a crisis by putting the body on alert. But its physical effects can be counterproductive, causing light-headedness, nausea, diarrhea, and frequent urination. And when it persists, anxiety can take a toll on our mental and physical health.
Anxiety often goes unidentified as a source of other disorders such as substance abuse or physical addiction, that can result from attempts to quell anxiety. And it's often overlooked in the myriad symptoms of chronic conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or migraine headache.
Anxiety has been implicated in several chronic physical illnesses, including heart disease, chronic respiratory disorders, and gastrointestinal conditions. When people with these disorders have untreated anxiety, the disease itself is more difficult to treat, their physical symptoms often become worse, and in some cases, they die sooner.
Reference: Harvard Health Publishing
At the Operational Stress Recovery Program, we utilize a variety of treatment modalities such as biofeedback/neurofeedback, EMDR, CBT, and somatic therapies to decrease anxiety and the physical manifestation of psychological trauma on the body. Somatic therapy is a form of body-centered therapy that looks at the connection of mind and body and uses both psychotherapy and physical therapies for holistic healing. In addition to talk therapy, somatic therapy uses mind-body exercises and other physical techniques to help release the pent-up tension that is negatively affecting the clients physical and emotional wellbeing. We are continually adapting our somatic program and adding new evidence-based therapies that can be life-changing for veterans and their families dealing with PTSD.