The military spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on mental health research and care. Although advances in medications and talk therapies for often disabling and chronic psychiatric conditions are a sound investment, other less expensive and non-traditional alternatives can provide substantial dividends.
Mixed Martial Arts, generally referred to simply as MMA, may be one of them. A full-contact sport incorporating various forms of wrestling and striking, MMA has become one of the hottest sports today. It has also found an accepting home within the military ranks — understandable considering the highly competitive and aggressive nature of the sport. Anecdotal reports from both veterans and MMA athletes highlight the sport’s positive benefits for a variety of psychological conditions, including post-traumatic stress and depression. But it’s unclear exactly why the sport is successful in alleviating the emotional distress associated with combat.
Some believe it’s related to increases in self-esteem, self-worth and social connectedness. Others attribute it to the opportunity to experience an emotional catharsis through physical means. Regardless of why it works, the potential for helping countless veterans seems real. On the other side of the spectrum, yoga has been shown to help troops recover from a variety of psychological problems, particularly PTSD.
Yoga is the ancient practice that combines controlled breathing, meditation, and different bodily postures for the purpose of inducing a sense of spiritual, mental, and physical well-being.
It’s believed that yoga combats psychological distress by bringing a person’s flight-or-flight response back into balance. That response is the delicate system in the body that prepares you to either fight or run when faced with a threat, which can become disrupted in those with PTSD.
Yoga also helps those suffering from PTSD fend off the distressing thoughts associated with the trauma. Disturbing memories are among the hallmark symptoms of PTSD. Through meditation and relaxation, a person with PTSD can redirect his thoughts and prevent the negative emotions from occurring.
The same may be true for nightmares, another common symptom of the disorder. Practicing meditation and other relaxation exercises before bed may keep these nighttime intruders away. It’s important to fund research and clinical practice in traditional methods, such as medication and talk therapy.
However, investing in new and innovative ways of treating the psychological problems faced by so many veterans is crucial.
Non-traditional methods like Mixed Martial Arts and yoga should be given their due attention.
*This article originally appeared in Dr. Moore's column "Kevlar for the Mind" published in Military Times.