New programs help veterans overcome trauma
After heading the UN mission in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide in which machete-wielding forces killed at least 800,000 people in 100 days, Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire blamed himself for everything that happened. He became suicidal and made headlines when he was discovered on a park bench in Ottawa after drinking himself into oblivion.
New programs are now being launched to help veterans overcome devastating but hidden wounds of war, conditions such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia, all of which struck Dallaire. Such initiatives mark a huge step forward in healing trauma and in the recognition of the mind-body connection, according to a local therapist.
A U.S. group called Bands for Freedom has just introduced its National Veteran Wellness Program, which will focus on treating physical and mental-health conditions. In Canada, meanwhile, the enhanced New Veterans Charter is being touted for its shift from disability management to a more modern, holistic model of wellness.
“One of the things people like Roméo Dallaire have done is bring trauma out of the closet,” says Catherine Fallis, a Vancouver movement therapist. “It’s so important that the military is now understanding those things.”
Underscoring people’s ability to overcome trauma is new research into the brain and neuroplasticity.
Fallis specializes in “somatic experiencing”, a body-awareness approach to trauma-healing developed by Boulder, Colorado, medical biophysicist and psychologist Peter Levine. The former NASA stress consultant’s methodology is based on what he calls an appreciation of how wild animals aren’t traumatized by routine threats to their lives whereas humans are readily overwhelmed.
“Fortunately, the very same instincts (and related survival-based brain systems) that are involved in the formation of trauma symptoms can be enlisted in the transformation and healing of trauma,” Levine writes on his website. “Therapeutically, this ‘instinct to heal’ and self-regulate is engaged through the awareness of body sensations that contradict those of paralysis and helplessness.”
Toronto MD, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and researcher Norman Doidge outlined the way people’s thoughts can alter the structure and function of their brains in his groundbreaking 2007 book, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science.
“Neuroplasticity not only gives hope to those with mental limitations, or what was thought to be incurable brain damage, but expands our understanding of the healthy brain and the resilience of human nature,” Doidge wrote. “We learn that our thoughts can switch our genes on and off, altering our brain anatomy.”
Fallis also subscribes to what’s known as the “polyvagal theory” of the autonomic nervous system formed by Chicago psychiatrist Stephen Porges. Proponents claim it will have huge implications for trauma therapies.
Porges maintains that everything from autism to panic attacks stems from the evolution of the human nervous system and that emotional disorders are biological in nature.
According to this theory, the autonomic nervous system has three, not two, branches: the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and social-engagement systems. Under stress, human beings first use the brain’s most sophisticated system, its relational tactics, as a survival strategy. If that fails, the fight-or-flight response kicks in. If that also fails, they end up in a state of immobility.
“The thing that I find very encouraging and inspiring about doing this work is that when people hear that they’re biologically programmed to go into freeze or shutdown when it becomes apparent that fight or flight aren’t going to work, they can forgive themselves for not fighting back or not doing enough or thinking ‘I should have done this or that’ in face of an accident or assault or anything like that,” Fallis says. “It’s not a failing of character if you can’t manage those kinds of things; it’s your biology.”
Trauma can result from a vast array of experiences, not just horrific events such as war, violence, or natural disasters, Levine contends. Rather, many seemingly ordinary situations can be traumatic.
“So-called minor automobile ‘whiplash’ accidents frequently lead to bewildering and debilitating physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms,” Levine writes. “Common invasive medical procedures and surgeries (particularly those performed on frightened children who are restrained while being anesthetized) can be profoundly traumatizing.”
The purpose of somatic experiencing is to help people find effective ways to address the lasting emotional effects of such events.
“The point is to expand people’s capacity to manage intense emotion,” Fallis says.
Jeanette Barrett is a Vancouver practitioner of self-regulation therapy (SRT), another form of trauma-healing centred on the mind-body connection. “I personally believe chronic conditions all have their roots in trauma, and that if we handle the trauma by default the chronic conditions by and large get resolved,” says Barrett in a phone interview.
Like other SRT practitioners, she maintains that stress and trauma can be physically discharged from the body. “That discharge is fairly physical in nature. It could be heat, tingling, twitching, yawning; that’s the stress information leaving the nervous system and leaving you free to reclaim your health or reclaim your life.
“The brain comes with its own operating system that allows us to self-correct,” she adds. “It’s quite extraordinary what it’s capable of doing.”