Global Resilience Solutions > Category:psychoneuroimmunology

Healing PTSD: Tai Chi and Energy Psychology to the Rescue…

Here’s a terrifying statistic for you – during 2012 alone, 349 active-duty U.S. military personnel took their own lives. More astounding is that number is 54 more than were killed in combat in Afghanistan that same year and a second all-time peak in three years! (Since 2001, more than 6,800 American service personnel have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan).

According to a well-known Veterans Affairs investigation, 22 veterans commit suicide in the US every day.

It is safe to say that many of these cases involve Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other psychological consequences of combat such as depression. PTSD is not a phenomenon confined to soldiers, but for obvious reasons, its highest concentrations are found in military and veteran populations.

What is PTSD?

Like all forms of traumatic programming, PTSD creates involuntary behaviour. The difference with PTSD is that the trauma is so intense that it starts to invade every aspect of life. Intrusive memories, flashbacks, the involuntary engagement of the fight-or-flight response leading to difficulty concentrating as well as insomnia and other symptoms, and emotional numbing in response to the traumatic event are all common symptoms. The hyper-arousal state caused by PTSD can lead to violent outbursts, and the experience can lead to substance abuse and other aberrant behaviours.

Modern warfare is a perfect breeding ground for PTSD. In World War I, when it was known as Shell Shock, men faced with the decimation of their units by weapons they couldn’t see or fight against, with the constant danger of bombardment and the prospect of being asked to perform suicidal charges against machine guns, it became obvious that the human mind is not designed to cope with the machinery of modern war.

PTSD and its symptoms of hyper-vigilance, anxiety, anger, overreaction and helplessness are strongly associated with repeated subjection to danger that cannot be fought off or even seen coming. Think about it for a moment…

In “conventional” war, from World War II through the first Gulf War, there was a clear front line and you knew when you were in danger and when you probably were not. As traumatic as those conflicts could be, you had “down time”.

However, in a “Vietnam-like” scenario – which is exactly the kind of conflict allied forces have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan – you can never know what’s about to hit you. There is no clear, visible enemy to fight, everyday life can turn into a battlefield instantly and the next IED may be right around the corner. The repeated tours of front-line duty typical of Afghanistan and Iraq have actually exceeded those of any previous war in terms of prolonged exposure to this hideously complex war environment.

However, many types of traumatic events, and particularly repeated or sudden traumas, can generate PTSD in the civilian population. Auto accident victims, victims of childhood abuse and civilian victims or war and terrorism are among the most frequent groups of PTSD sufferers.

What We Can Do About It

Veterans’ organisations are generally very good at educating people about the basics of helping someone with PTSD. Patience and support are crucial, because by the nature of the disorder, the person suffering from it will often drive people away and destroy all ties with ordinary life. It is therefore important when acknowledging the condition to offer support and, in professional settings, to make it clear that while they should seek treatment, there will be no professional repercussions. The two essential points to remember with PTSD are to make sure those who suffer it get help, which they will often resist, and that as difficult as the symptoms may be for everyone, it is essential to give PTSD sufferers a stable professional and personal support system while they work through the disorder.

With that support structure in place, how can we ultimately deal with the condition? Numerous methods of treatment have been tried, from talk therapy and pharmaceutical medication to hypnosis and virtual reality therapy, with varying results. In many cases, without a substantial reduction in the underlying condition, the patient ultimately gives up.

In this video, Jacob White, a Vietnam veteran and Tai Chi master, talks about his own struggle with PTSD and how he used the techniques of Tai Chi to transform his inner state. What I like about this video is that Jacob underscores the transformation that needs to take place from the reactions and default settings of a soldier to those of a warrior, which is a fundamental change in how we process the world.

The Warrior Within from Jacob White on Vimeo.

Tai Chi is one avenue of work that has shown promise with PTSD, but there are a number of other approaches that have as well. Thought-Field Therapy (TFT) and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) are approaches combining acupuncture point pressure with cognitive exercises which have shown startling results in several peer-reviewed studies. In studies with child survivors of the Rwandan Genocide and combat veterans where the subjects were assessed using standard PTSD checklist measures, decreases across most symptom areas of 40% or more were recorded, and retained over time after 90-day and 1-year follow-ups (1). A control study with EFT showed that after three months, 86% of treated subjects no longer met clinical criteria for PTSD (Presented at Society of Behavioral Medicine 2010). In some studies, brainwaves were monitored before and after the therapy, and showed significant change.

TFT and EFT are among the most basic tools of Energy Psychology. The deeper baggage of traumatic events often takes more sophisticated tools to root out. It is in areas like cognitive reframing and the relationship between cognition, emotions and the body’s neurochemical responses that some interesting studies are being done. Psychoneuroimmunology, which studies this relationship, has found that PTSD sufferers literally have an altered biochemistry caused by the relationship between emotional states and immune system triggers.

In any case, it is reassuring to know that the decades-long struggles of PTSD sufferers of previous generations need not be repeated, that the condition can not only be managed, but substantially reduced.

Do you know any PTSD sufferers or those caring for them? Let’s get the word out that there is hope!

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

(1) (Traumatology, (2010), 15(1), 45-55; International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, Winter 2010, 12(1), 41-50; and International Journal of Healing and Caring, September 2009, 9(3)).

Five Fun Facts and Five Important Discoveries About the Human Body

Understanding this human body we inhabit, with all its talents and quirks, is a key for our personal resilience. Here are some fun facts and discoveries that may get you thinking about your body in new ways.

Fact 1: The human nose can distinguish at least 10,000 different odours.

Discovery 1: Epigenetics

We are all pretty much used to the idea that our DNA contains a program that creates the proteins that in turn create us. DNA contains the details of how we work, our susceptibility to different diseases and disorders. Science used to tell us that our DNA was our destiny, that our genetic self was set in stone. Today, we know that this isn’t true. We know, for example, that certain cancers appear to be passed down genetically. But research has also shown that adopted children exhibit the same predisposition toward cancer and other diseases as their adopted family. A new branch of science called epigenetics explores how genes are expressed.

Identical twins with identical DNA, for example, will start life with the same set of epigenetic predispositions that govern how their DNA is expressed. As they go through life and their experiences start to diverge, those epigenetic tags start to differentiate, to the point where the twins may end up looking very different, experiencing different health challenges etc.

There are at least 30,000 different combinations of ways in which any genetic code can be expressed, depending on the epigenetic tags. Thus, the genome is more like a set of building blocks than a complete blueprint. The way the blocks are put together determines the outcome.

Fact 2: Medicine attributes around 1/3 of all healings to the placebo effect.

Discovery 2: Heart Thought

Within the heart, there are many neural cells, and specialists now believe that these cells act to imprint the heart’s substantial electromagnetic charge with the information needed to regulate the cells of the body. Studies have shown that the heart responds faster than the brain to outside stimulation.

Fact 3: Cow’s milk, peanuts, egg whites, wheat and soybeans account for 90% of allergies.

Discovery 3: Muscle Fibres

There are basically three types of muscle fibres- slow, fast twitch and super-fast twitch. The fast and super-fast twitch fibres make up the “white” muscle. While the normal “red” muscle gets the lion’s share of the blood supply, fast-twitch fibres are largely glycolytic in metabolism- they are working off the body’s stored energy. By triggering these fibres, you switch to the body’s anaerobic metabolism, which in turn has been shown to release significant amounts of human growth hormone (HGH), a significant factor for health, longevity and muscle growth.

Fact 4: The brain uses 20% of the body’s oxygen and glucose intake.

Discovery 4: Good Fat

Low-fat diets were all the rage a few decades ago and haven’t yet died out completely, but the truth is that it matters more what kinds of fats you eat than whether you eat them (and your body does need them).

Unfortunately, modern diets tend to be weighted toward Omega 6 fatty acids rather than Omega 3, while our bodies are designed for the opposite. This is of particular concern, because there is evidence that one particular kind of Omega 6 molecule is associated with memory loss and neural degeneration. We get Omega 6 from grain-fed factory-farm animal products, but especially from vegetable oil (corn, sunflower, canola and soybean), which is the main source of this imbalance in our diet. These are present in most processed foods.

Conversely, Omega 3 is quite important for brain health. Dietary sources can be supplemented by krill oil or fish oil capsules, but beware of eating too much fish, as fish in our food chain is often contaminated with mercury and PCBs.

Fact 5: All the human body’s blood vessels, laid end to end, would measure around 96,000 kilometres (60,000 miles). So your blood vessels could circle the earth at the equator nearly two and a half times!

Discovery 5: Psychoneuroimmunology

Psychoneuroimmunology is a field of study that has helped us to understand the link between your emotions, the neurochemical state of your body and your immune system. It turns out that our stress responses and our immune systems are wired into the same system.

If you are always experiencing stress, you are always triggering your fight or flight response, the neurotransmitter chemicals are going out and screaming at your immune system to get going. The trouble is, this becomes your new neurochemical baseline, and your shell-shocked cells decrease their sensitivity to all these neurochemicals. In response, your body sends out more and more of them. It’s like trying to keep a military on war alert all the time- after the fiftieth false alarm, they’re not going to respond as quickly. This chemical state affects us not only on the emotional level, as fear, anger and stress become suffering and depression, but on the genetic level as well. And your immune system is even worse off. A persistent adrenal response causes the immune system to activate again and again, sending messenger chemicals throughout our bodies.

The immune organs- the bone marrow, the thymus gland, the spleen and the lymph nodes- have abundant connections to the nervous system and act in response to impulses received from the brain. Likewise, white blood cells and lymph cells provide feedback to the brain, because they are capable of secreting almost all of the hormones, endorphins and messenger chemicals the body produces, and can also read these substances when sent by other cells.

The hub of this system is the glands that answer the phones, so to speak, in the body’s defence system. These are the adrenals, pituitary and hypothalamus. These are the organs that dispatch epinephrine and cortisol to activate the body’s defences when a threat is sensed, whether physical, emotional or health-related.

This switchboard gets its instructions from the emotional centres of your brain. It doesn’t know the difference between a hungry tiger and an unsatisfied emotional need or constant low-level stress. All that this system knows is when we achieve what’s called consummation, when we’ve done something to remove the danger or relieve the tension. If we can’t do that, the system stays active, and that activity wears down all of our body’s defence systems.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger