Thank You, War

Vets turn breakdowns into breakthroughs

by Jennifer Fallon | Updated 01 Sep 2016 at 4:07 PM

The Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was best known as a critic of totalitarianism who helped raise awareness of the brutality in forced labor camps in the former Soviet Union. 

“Bless you prison,” Solzhenitsyn wrote of his traumatic experience in his book “Gulag Archipelago.”

“Thank you prison for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”

Solzhenitsyn was not a soldier in the military sense, but a warrior who used words to fight for freedom, and suffered the brutality of Soviet totalitarianism.

His ability to spiritually transcend his circumstances and transform himself as a result of his suffering shows the potential to turn trauma into growth. It’s that potential that a new therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder therapy is trying to tap.

His ability to spiritually transcend his circumstances and transform himself as a result of his suffering shows the potential to turn trauma into growth.

John Meyers never goes to see fireworks with his family on the Fourth of July. “I’ve seen enough fireworks to last me a lifetime,” he said.

Meyers (not his real name) is a World War II veteran. He and fellow Marines invaded Saipan during one of the most brutal battles in the Pacific. The Japanese, unwilling to surrender, hid in the caves on the mountains of the island. U.S. forces suffered massive losses, clearing the island one cave at a time with flamethrowers. This patch of caves became known as “Hell’s Pocket” and “Purple Heart Ridge.”

Even after 70 years, Meyers can’t talk about his experiences. He’s never healed from his trauma.

But times have changed. Although a fifth of Iraq war veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder, these warriors are learning to turn their post-traumatic stress into post-traumatic growth, using cognitive therapy.

Veterans are learning to turn their post-traumatic stress into post-traumatic growth, using cognitive therapy.

Brandon Yabko, a psychologist with the Veterans Affairs health care system in Salt Lake City, said cognitive therapy, or mindfulness, is teaching veterans to live with symptoms rather than avoid them.

Patients learn to ask themselves questions like, “How do I have a panic attack and still continue to do what matters? How can I have anger and still be the father or mother that I want to be?”

Yabko said the therapy is focused on acceptance and commitment — acceptance that you may need to experience long-term PTSD symptoms, and commitment that you will live according to your personal values anyway. To do this, veterans have to connect with their value system.

Yabko helps them by asking them to imagine themselves when they’re 90 years old. “What do you want to be remembered for? What do you want your life to mean?” he asks.

In the past, treatments for PTSD focused on reducing symptoms. Veterans often kept themselves so busy they wouldn’t have to remember their trauma. This leads to conditions similar to Meyers’ — 70 years later, there is still no healing. The new therapy, Yabko said, focuses on increasing the positive things in a veteran’s life instead of masking the symptoms.

But it isn’t easy to deal with panic and still attend your children’s school plays, where the smoking stage effects can trigger a flashback. Yabko and other specialists help veterans learn to focus on what is actually happening in the present, rather than feeling trapped in the past.

This kind of healing can result in more intimate relationships with family and a more hopeful view of life as a whole.

This kind of healing can result in more intimate relationships with family and a more hopeful view of life as a whole.

“However, in order to see that you have choices about how you respond, you have to be in the moment,” he said. That means recognizing the negative emotions of your trauma, but choosing to focus instead on what is actually happening.

Usually this requires an anchor of some kind to the present — something that engages your senses. It can be feeling the air in your lungs, chewing strong mints, or smelling coffee grounds. Being mindful also means learning to view your thoughts as independent events instead of rules for what you have to believe.

But what does post-traumatic growth actually look like? Research last year shows veterans report positive growth in their perception of themselves, their relationships with others, and in their personal life philosophies. This kind of healing can result in more intimate relationships with family and a more hopeful view of life as a whole.

  1. foreign-wars
  2. ptsd
  3. va-hospital
  4. veterans

Comments are closed.