Written by Helen Frazier
We’ve spoken at length about the power of art to treat traumatized veterans. Nor are we the only ones to appreciate art’s potential in this arena. However, what works for some may well not work for others - particularly when it comes to something as complex and individualized as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The VA and the government tend to stick strictly to evidence-based medicine when recommending PTSD treatments (and why should they not?). However, their facilities for actually providing these treatments are sadly lacking - due largely to overwhelming demand. Do not despair, though. If art therapy is not helping you to heal, and you’re struggling to get conventional treatment, there are other options out there. Here are just a few ideas which may help you.
Yoga & Meditation
Yoga and meditative practices are becoming widely accepted as treatments - even in famously conservative military circles. So much so that you may actually find that you’re covered for it if your yoga/meditation treatment comes from a recognized provider. While it doesn’t work for everyone, an astonishing number of suffering people have said that they found their symptoms diminished and their quality of life considerably improved by yoga and/or meditation. How can this be? Well, yoga and meditation help people to break negative or traumatic thought cycles. Yoga in particular can force the brain to quit worrying and relax. It does this by essentially working backwards from body to mind. By deliberately inducing symptoms of calm in the body - i.e. steady breathing, a relaxed heartbeat, smooth movements - the body sends signals to the brain that everything is absolutely fine and it can calm down. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it works. Meditation has a similar effect. What is more, both yoga and meditation can send the brain into a ‘safe space’ - a calm, unpressured level of thought in which negative emotions and experiences can be processed by the psyche without excess trauma being expressed through the consciousness. Needless to say, this can contribute enormously to the healing process.
There are several charities out there which are pioneering the use of assistance dogs for those with PTSD. Animals - dogs in particular - are known to be good for the mental health of those who love them. On one level, interacting with and being responsible for an animal gives one a sense of purpose. They also bestow pride, give companionship, allow the expression of love (which many traumatized individuals struggle with), draw out emotions, help communication, soothe stress and much more. The simple act of stroking a pet can lower both your stress levels and your blood pressure. In addition to these benefits, trained PTSD assistance dogs can aid their masters in more specific ways. Hypervigilance, for example, can be put on hold if the patient knows that their dog is there to take on some of that burden. Furthermore, dogs can be trained to recognize their owners ‘triggers’ and either warn their owners or those around them of an impending PTSD situation. According to many sources, these dogs do an awful lot of good.
While the practice of sticking needles in someone to alleviate their troubles may sound dubious, acupuncture actually appears surprisingly effective in treating PTSD. Further trials are certainly needed in order to scientifically establish the efficacy of acupuncture in this field, but experiential evidence is generally positive.The scientific and spiritual theories behind acupuncture are too complex to go into here, but (put very basically) acupuncture is supposed to alter and smooth the flow of both liquids and more ephemeral forces around the body. It’s certainly been proven to have an effect upon the circulation, and may improve blood flow to the brain - something which could be of enormous help for those with mental trauma. On a less cellular level, acupuncture is also very soothing. It’s generally acknowledged to help patients to sleep deeply and well, which is in itself an immensely healing process. It will also fight stress, and help the patient to relax. Crucially, it can help the patient to reconnect with their own vulnerabilities, to accept them, and to trust. For those who have suffered mental trauma following combat, this can be invaluable.
Originally published at www.SOFREP.com on March 21st, 2016
These are some of the most haunting two-syllable words the English language has ever produced. They have been screamed out by thousands of men and women across the battlefields of years past and will continue as long as man rules this planet.
It was an episode of “Band of Brothers” that first inspired me to want to be a medic. Maybe you’ve seen it. Episode six highlights the world in which Doc Roe lived during the fateful battle in the forests outside Bastogne. What amazed me most was watching how, when the shelling started and all the men of Easy Company were diving for their foxholes, Doc Roe was jumping out of his, running to the cries of “Medic!” and “Doc!” After seeing that, I was hooked. Becoming a medic was my purpose—my calling, if you will.
Now, I am no Doc Roe, friends. Though I have my share of fateful encounters and combat stories, and though I hope my work as a medic ranks on the good side, there are medics from across the decades that provide truly jaw-dropping inspiration. With that in mind, I want to showcase the actions of what were ordinary men (boys, really) who rose to accomplish the extraordinary. Their motivation was not for fame, riches, or glory, but simply for the love that is the brotherhood—a bond that defies reason and propels men to heroic feats beyond comprehension. Just maybe, one of these stories will provide the inspiration for America’s next generation of combat medics and corpsman, perhaps even one who will save your life or those of your children should they answer this nation’s call.
World War II
CPL Thomas J. Kelly—U.S. Army
Assigned as an aidman (medic) with the 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, with the 48th Armored Infantry Battalion, 7th ID, CPL Kelly and his platoon were performing a flanking maneuver, advancing down a small open valley near the town of Alemaert, Germany. This valley, overlooked by wooded slopes, was hiding enemy machine guns and tanks, which quickly attacked with murderous fire—inflicting heavy American casualties. Ordered to withdraw, CPL Kelly reached safety with the uninjured remnants of the unit. However, upon realizing the extent of his platoon’s casualties, he voluntarily retraced his steps and began evacuating his comrades under direct machine-gun fire.
He was forced to crawl, dragging the injured behind him for most of the 300 yards separating the exposed area from a place of comparative safety. Two other volunteers who attempted to negotiate the hazardous route with him were mortally wounded, but with complete disregard for his own life, he kept on with his Herculean task, dressing the wounded and carrying them to relative safety.
In all, he made 10 separate trips through the brutal fire, each time bringing out a man from what would have been certain death. In addition, he encouraged and guided seven more casualties who were able to crawl by themselves, aiding their escape from this hailstorm of fire.
After he had completed this heroic and completely self-imposed task, and while near collapse from fatigue, he refused to leave his platoon until the counterattack had resumed and the final objective was taken. CPL Kelly’s gallantry and intrepidity in the face of seemingly certain death saved the lives of many of his fellow soldiers and was a shining example of bravery under intense enemy fire.
For these incredible acts of courage, CPL Thomas Kelly was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The Korean War
HC3 William R. Charette—U.S. Navy
In the early morning hours, while participating in a fierce encounter with a cleverly concealed and well-entrenched enemy force occupying positions on a vital and bitterly contested outpost far in advance of the main line of resistance, HC3 Charette repeatedly and unhesitatingly moved about through a murderous barrage of hostile small-arms and mortar fire to render assistance to his wounded comrades.
When an enemy grenade landed within a few feet of a Marine he was attending, he immediately threw himself upon the stricken man and absorbed the entire concussion of the deadly missile with his body. Although sustaining painful facial wounds, and undergoing shock from the intensity of the blast—it ripped the helmet and medical aid kit from his person—Charette resourcefully improvised emergency bandages, tearing off part of his uniform and gallantly continued to administer medical aid to the wounded in his own unit as well as those in adjacent platoon areas.
Observing a seriously wounded comrade whose armored vest had been torn from his body by the blast of an exploding shell, Charette selflessly removed his own battle vest and placed it upon the helpless man, fully aware of the added danger to himself. Moving to the side of another casualty who was suffering excruciating pain from a serious leg wound, Charette stood upright in the trench line and exposed himself to a deadly barrage of enemy fire in order to lend more effective aid to the victim while he was evacuated to a position of safety. By way of his indomitable courage and inspiring efforts on behalf of his wounded comrades, Charette was directly responsible for saving many lives and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor
The Vietnam War
SPC Alfred Rascon—U.S. Army
Specialist Four Alfred Rascon distinguished himself by way of a series of extraordinarily courageous acts on 16 March, 1966, while assigned as a medic to the Headquarters Company, Reconnaissance Platoon, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry, of the 173d Airborne Brigade. While moving to reinforce its sister battalion under intense enemy attack, his platoon came under heavy fire from a numerically superior enemy force. This intense enemy fire from crew-served weapons and grenades severely wounded several soldiers. Specialist Rascon, while ignoring commands to stay behind shelter until covering fire could be provided, bravely made his way forward.
He repeatedly tried to reach the severely wounded point machine-gunner laying on an open enemy trail, but was driven back each time by the withering fire. Disregarding his personal safety, he jumped to his feet, ignoring flying bullets and exploding grenades to reach his comrade. To protect him from further wounds, he intentionally placed his body between his casualty and the incoming enemy machine-gun fire, sustaining numerous shrapnel injuries and a serious wound to his hip. Disregarding his serious wounds, he then dragged the larger soldier from the kill zone.
Next, after hearing the second machine-gunner yell that he was running out of ammunition, SPC Rascon, under heavy enemy fire, crawled back to the wounded machine-gunner, stripping him of his bandoleers of ammunition, giving them to the operational machine-gunner, who was then able to continue his suppressive fire. Specialist Rascon, fearing the abandoned machine gun, its ammo, and spare barrel could fall into enemy hands, made his way to retrieve them. On the way, he was wounded in the face and torso by grenade fragments, but disregarded these wounds to recover the sensitive items, enabling another soldier to provide added suppressive fire to the pinned-down squad.
In searching for the wounded, he saw the point grenadier wounded by small-arms fire and grenades thrown at him. With continued disregard for his own life and his numerous critical wounds, SPC Rascon reached this casualty and quickly covered him with his body to absorb the blasts from exploding enemy grenades, saving this soldier’s life. In the process, SPC Rascon sustained additional wounds to his body.
While making his way to the wounded point squad leader, grenades were hurled at the sergeant. Again, in complete disregard for his own life, he reached and covered the sergeant with his body, absorbing the full force of the grenade explosions. Yet again, SPC Rascon was critically wounded by shrapnel, but without regard to his own wounds, he continued his search to aid the wounded. He remained on the battlefield, inspiring his fellow soldiers to continue the fight. After the enemy broke contact, he disregarded aid for himself, instead treating the wounded and directing their evacuation. Only after being placed on the evacuation helicopter did he allow aid to be adminstered to him.
For these heroic acts of valor and sacrifice, SPC Alfred Rascon was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Written by Helen Frazer
We’ve known for millenia that art is can be a powerful tool for healing. However, precisely how this healing works is hard to define in scientific terms. As a consequence, art therapy has been rather left on the periphery of the therapeutic disciplines - used generally inconjunction with or as a tangential aspect of other, more scientifically understood therapies. Now, however, scientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists are beginning to make inroads towards discovering what, precisely, is occurring within our brains when we make and view art. Why IS art so profoundly healing? Why does it affect us in the way that it does? And how can we use it to enhance our own wellbeing?
Art As Therapy
We already know through personal experience that the creation of art can be very therapeutic. Those who have suffered mental trauma during combat will frequently have problems including (but not limited to) processing their problems, expressing their pain, and communicating with the outer world at large. Art can help with all of these issues, and more. A great many charities and veterans’ organizations utilize the healing power of art to help suffering individuals to heal their psyches. Art therapy helps people to get thoughts and experiences which may be ‘stuck’ on endless repeat out of their heads and into physically expressed form. The baggage which is cluttering up the unconscious is similarly incorporated into the art, leaving the sufferer with a clear mind (or so the theory runs). What is more, the creation of art gives those who may be feeling worthless a skill, and something to live for. After traumatic combat experiences, this can be invaluable.
The Neuroscience Of Experiencing Art
Scientists have for a while been pondering the neurobiology of art. Art is a perplexing problem, scientifically speaking. It affects us all differently - suggesting that our opinions of it are based upon considered individual experience - but there does appear to be a ‘gut reaction’ component to art-viewing, meaning that the phenomenon cannot be put down entirely to experiential differences. What happens when we view art, and why do we react in different ways to different pieces? Why do some people sob at music which leaves others cold? Why does your mother hate that painting you’ve hung in your hall? Why do you cringe at your friends’ aesthetic choices? Well, scientists are not entirely sure - but they’re having a damn good crack at finding out.
Researchers all over the world are gathering information from brainwave measurements, brain scans, neural probes and many more sources to try and find the common factor which may unlock the mystery of art’s effect upon the psyche. We do know that the brain decides incredibly fast (faster even than our consciousness realizes) whether or not it likes a piece of art (much the same phenomenon, interestingly, can be observed when the brain encounters new people). And while the brain can change its judgement, to do so requires a degree of considered exposure combined with positive associations. We also know that different kinds of art light up different portions of the brain. A painting or sculpture with plenty of dynamic, swirly or diagonal lines will wake up the brain’s visual motor cortex (which deals with movement). A painting which resembles a sad face will bring out an empathetic response in our minds. And looking at a piece of art we enjoy (unsurprisingly) brings the brain’s reward circuits to life.
Although we do not yet quite understand why our brains respond in the way that they do when viewing art, it is clear that our minds are very engaged with it. If they’re this engaged with simply appreciating art, it stands to reason that they can be powerfully transformed and healed through the even more intense process of creating it.
Art And The Soul
But do the precise neurobiological mechanisms involved in art creation and appreciation really matter? We know - and have known since the first shamans encouraged their patients to draw on rocks - that art is good for the soul. Will trying to pinpoint, analyse, and break down its effects into scientifically delineated components really make a difference to this essential knowledge? Will it enable the scientific community to ‘tap into’ our creative, healing mechanisms and help more suffering people? Or will it simply reduce art into something cold and clinical - something which art currently is absolutely and profoundly not? The answer to this no doubt depends on what (if anything) the scientists discover. In the meantime, we must continue to create, to heal, and to teach others through art.
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