Post traumatic stress disorder is a common and often disabling psychiatric condition experienced by many service members and veterans. Estimates vary, but many experts agree that rates may be as high as 15 percent in those who have served in the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
This estimate is also consistent with reported rates in Vietnam war veterans.
In order to stay in front of what some believe to be a psychiatric “epidemic” in our troops, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have spent hundreds of millions of dollars studying the prevention and treatment of the disorder. And it is likely that hundreds of millions more will be spent when it is all said and done.
Much of the research monies is spent on developing and refining targeted cognitive and behavioral psychotherapies and pharmaceutical agents. Although I believe advances in medications and talk therapies for this chronic psychiatric condition is a sound investment, it is also my belief that other less expensive and non-traditional alternatives can provide substantial dividends. Unfortunately, very few funds are funneled to non-traditional interventions.
One non-traditional intervention that may prove beneficial for combat veterans is the practice of Mixed Martial Arts, generally referred to simply as MMA. MMA is a full contact sport incorporating various forms of wrestling, punching and kicking in a controlled and methodical manner.
Over the past decade, the fan base and rate of participation in the sport have grown exponentially. In fact, it has become one of the hottest sports today in the general public. Considering that the military is microcosm of larger society, it makes sense that MMA has also found an accepting home within the military ranks.
The growth in participation and popularity of MMA in the military is understandable considering the highly competitive and aggressive nature of the sport. Indeed, military members are excellent candidates for this type of activity. They are trained early on in their careers in a variety of hand-to-hand combat techniques. Furthermore, discipline, drive, and physical prowess are key traits of service members, traits that are critical if one is to excel in the sport of MMA.
Although there is virtually no sound scientific evidence supporting the use of MMA or any sport for that matter, in treating trauma-related conditions, anecdotal reports from both veterans and MMA athletes highlight the sport’s positive benefits for a variety of psychological conditions including PTSD and depression.
It is unclear why the sport is successful in alleviating the emotional distress associated with combat. Some believe it is 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 like a real possibility.
On the other side of the behavioral activity and physical spectrum is yoga. Yoga has been shown to help troops recover from a variety of psychological problems, particularly PTSD. Yoga is the ancient mental, physical, and spiritual practice that combines controlled breathing, meditation and different bodily postures for the purpose of inducing a sense of mental, physical, and spiritual well-being.
The Effects of Yoga
It’s believed that yoga combats psychological distress by bringing a person’s flight-or-flight response back into balance. The fight-or-flight response is the delicate system in the body that prepares you to either fight or run when faced with a threat.
In those with PTSD, the system can become disrupted. And any intervention that can restore this balance will alleviate emotional and physical distress.
Yoga also helps those suffering from PTSD fend off the distressing thoughts associated with the trauma. Ruminations and disturbing memories are hallmark symptoms of the disorder. Through meditation and relaxation, a person with PTSD can redirect his or her thoughts and prevent the negative emotions from occurring.
The same may be true for nightmares, which is another common symptom of the disorder. Practicing meditation and other relaxation exercises prior to bedtime may keep these nighttime intruders away. It may also help with sleep initiation and maintenance.
I am a strong proponent for funding PTSD related research, especially for studies that aim to identify psychotherapies and medications that are more effective, better tolerated and cost effective.
However, investing in new and innovative ways of treating the psychological problems faced by so many of our veterans is crucial. Non-traditional methods like Mixed Martial Arts and yoga should be given their due attention. If not, we are overlooking two potentially useful methods for combating one the most significant challenges faced by our veterans and healthcare system today.
*This article was adapted from a previous article written by Dr. Moore for his column “Kevlar for the Mind.”
MMA photo available from Shutterstock