When Breath Saves Life
For these veterans, healing trauma was as simple as learning how to breathe.
Posted May 16, 2013
"They're all yours," says the psychiatrist. In front of me, a group of 15 young men. Clad in baseball hats or skullcaps, some have long beards, others tattoos. Everyone is wearing sunglasses though we are indoors. The youngest one looks barely over 18. With closely cropped blonde hair and fear-drenched eyes he is visibly shaking, seemingly locked into a permanent state of anxiety. I barely notice an accidental bang of a chair against the wall but it raises startled angry curses from the hypervigilant men in the room. My first experience teaching veterans with PTSD. At first: A lewd joke, laughs, and “these breathing exercises are stupid.” Afterwards: “I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt so relaxed.” They conclude: "This is why we think we smoke, all that deep breathing." To their psychiatrist: "We tested her and she passed." Phew.
Though the military trains them for war, it does not train them for peace. After a long deployment of holding their breath in combat, they often return to civilian life no longer knowing how to breathe. Over 20% of the 2 million veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a disorder characterized by severe anxiety, debilitating flashbacks of traumatic events, and alarmingly high rates of suicide. Unfortunately, traditional treatments for PTSD (medication and exposure therapy) are often hard to bear or noxious. These treatments have depressingly low success rates.
In 2009, I entered the laboratory of Dr. Richard Davidson as a postdoctoral fellow and dedicated my research to investigating how yoga and breathing-based practices (Sudarshan Kriya Yoga) can help returning veterans. Initial participant interviews were gruesome. Entrenched in the hellish grip of war memories, 24-year olds said they felt 80 and recount stories of horror. Others cried and showed me tattoos of the names of friends they lost to combat or suicide. In some of the worst cases, the trauma of war was coupled with that of rape.
The one-week intervention was successful. Statistical analyses showed significant decreases in PTSD, anxiety, and insomnia. Improvements remained one year later, suggesting permanent change. More telling were the veterans’ words: “I feel like I have been dead since I came back from Iraq and I feel like I am alive again. I feel happy, like a kid again,” shares a former Army officer. “A few weeks ago shooting, cars exploding, screaming, death, that was your world. Now back home, no one knows what it is like over there so no one knows how to help you get back your normalcy. They label you a victim of the war. I AM NOT A VICTIM... but how do I get back my normalcy? For most of us it is booze and Ambien. It works for a brief period then it takes over your life. Until this study, I could not find the right help for me, BREATH’ing like a champ!” writes a young marine.
“I AM NOT A VICTIM.” Someone with the courage to go to war does not easily embrace victimhood. The beauty of yoga-based practices, however, is that they do not require dependence on a therapist or drug. The veterans learn how to take care of their own mind and well-being using their breath. Empowered and relieved of their anxiety, they often reconnect with the spirit of service that led them to volunteer for the military in the first place. Now, this service is dedicated to other vets. "Thank you for giving me my life back," shared Travis Leanna, a young marine who participated in our study and then decided to become an instructor with Project Welcome Home Troops (the organization that teaches Sudarshan Kriya Yoga to veterans) so he could help other vets.
I am deeply grateful to every veteran in this study not only for their participation, but for embodying the true meaning of service, commitment, compassion, integrity, humility and kindness.
An award-winning documentary filmmaker, Phie Ambo, shadowed our entire study and filmed the veterans' transformation. It is called Free the Mind and its trailer is currently one of the most popular on iTunes (click here to watch it). Distribution is limited (for locations, see here). You can request a showing in your city on tugg.com.
Emma is the founder of Fulfillment Daily, science-based news for a happier life.
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© 2014 Emma Seppala, Ph.D.