The popularity of alternative therapies to address war-related anxiety is rising as vets seek a mix of exercise therapy, yoga and mindfulness to alleviate stress
By Nicole Federica
On a typical day, Benjamin King wakes up at 3:30 a.m., rolls over to grab a pad and paper to document his dreams and then guides himself through 40 minutes of meditation.
“I focus on emotion, sensation and my breath… all in a very mindful way,” said King, a 32-year-old Army veteran.
This routine is very different from previous years, when King relied on both alcohol and medication to fall asleep.
Back then, “I would just knock myself out, and I became pretty good at that,” King said. “I knew exactly how much to drink.”
However, once King started practicing iRest, a form of yoga, his health improved. Going to sleep was no longer a challenge, he said, and alcohol was not a necessary crutch.
King is one of a growing number of veterans using alternative therapies to combat war-related anxieties and, for some, post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2011 study published by the Department of Veterans Affairs concluded that complementary and alternative medicinal therapies, also known as CAM therapies, “are widely used by mental health consumers, including veterans, and numerous stakeholders have expressed strong interest in fostering the evidence base for these approaches in PTSD.”
Walking off the war
During their 2011 tour in Afghanistan, Marines Sean Gobin and Mark Silvers decided over breakfast one morning that they would fulfill Gobin’s dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Silvers suggested using their six-month hike as a way to raise funds for wounded veterans. With 14 states and 35 stops at various veteran organizations along the way, Gobin and Silvers successfully raised $50,000 to purchase adapted vehicles for veterans with multiple amputees, which Gobin described as “far too common during the present conflict.”
Post-hike, Gobin and Silbers realized “the physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits of hiking the Appalachian Trail” and decided to partner with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to create the “Walk Off The War” Program, an exercise-based therapy program for veterans transitioning from military to civilian life.
“One thing the military has a hard time wrapping its head around is, how do you transition guys from multiple combat tours back to society?” said Gobin, 37. “There is a lot of difficulty that comes with that.”
He explained that today’s veterans are not given the opportunity or time to decompress and readjust their minds to civilian life.
“In today’s conflict, you could be on a combat patrol and literally in a matter of hours be back in the U.S.,” Gobin said. “So, there is no decompression period.”
Upon returning from war, “I sat through a PowerPoint presentation that had little to no effect [on me], so when Mark and I were [hiking] along the trail, we thought that this would be a phenomenal way to transition.”
Of the 14 members currently hiking the trail, Gobin said “a large percentage” noted suffering on some level with PTSD but have since reported noteworthy mental health improvements as they embark on week seven of their hike.
Gobin said they encourage participants to “hike their own hike,” using the daily 8-mile legs to not only interact with the group, but to also venture off when needed and simply be alone — taking time to focus on themselves and their thoughts.
Like Gobin, King also experienced healing through exercise therapy. His merely doesn’t involve any trails.
King, who founded a personal training company called Core Spiral Wellness that emphasizes the benefits he discovered through mindfulness, practices what is known as yoga nidra, “a style of yoga that doesn’t involve movement.” Specifically, he practices iRest, a subset of yoga nidra with “unique characteristics … in regards to how you get at your internal environment,” King said.
Since then, King has been practicing every day. Soltes described the alternative therapy as a way for veterans like King to guide themselves back to a “direct sensory experience in the body.”
By slowing down his mind, King said iRest helped him overcome years of “constant anxiety,” during which he had “no control over my mind.”
Both Gobin’s and King’s approaches are centuries-old, Western practices, yet the Department of Veterans Affairs has only recently employed them as alternatives to traditional PTSD treatments. During a 2011 VA meeting, Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould outlined the Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM) method, accepting meditative techniques and mind-body practices as an actual treatment for war-induced anxiety.
Before he started practicing yoga, “I was constantly having reactions to things going on in my head, whether it be a meltdown or an eruption every night,” King said.
Referencing his first class, King added, “We started with the breathing practice and then moved in to yoga nidra … and I felt my mind slow down, I felt my consciousness kind of drop down and I experienced the ability to actually influence my mind and that was just unbelievable.”
Despite the benefits, King said there are many hurdles in convincing a veteran to attend a yoga nidra class or seek other forms of alternative therapy.
For starters, King said, members of the military usually feel uncomfortable asking for help, since they see it as a sign of weakness. Beyond that, he added, “the military is all about practicality.”
Alternative therapies like yoga nidra, King said, don’t exactly sound practical to many veterans. For example, veterans introduced to yoga nidra often question how merely sitting can actually help them heal. Yet King explained that what many veterans do not recognize is that “you are actually taught meditation in basic training.”
“It is not that far out,” King said. “[It’s] totally practical.”