Military veterans accustomed to handling deadly weapons may at first feel awkward with paintbrush and palate in hand.

Yet painting, sculpting, writing and singing increasingly are being welcomed as outside-the-box therapies for many returning warriors who have been psychologically scarred by battle and are seeking a creative way to conquer their inner demons.

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A decade-plus of dual wars has contributed to unprecedented rates of psychiatric illness among our bravest. A series of reports published last year in JAMA Psychiatry brought to light the cruel reality that depression and episodes of anger and rage, respectively, are five and six times higher among service members compared to their civilian counterparts.

The most disturbing statistic is the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder. This potentially disabling condition, often characterized by nightmares and disturbing thoughts, is estimated to be 15 times higher in those who have donned the uniform. 

Historically, veterans with PTSD have been treated with an array of powerful psychiatric medications and intensive talk therapies. Depending on the medication or therapy, effectiveness varies, as does the treatment dropout rate. On the latter, studies have shown dropout rates as high as 50 percent for both types of treatment.

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Finding a creative outlet to overcome combat stress is often better tolerated and believed by some to be comparably effective. The most notable of these outlets is art therapy. 

Healing exercise (photo: Boulder Crest Retreat)

Research, albeit limited, supports the idea that performing art brings relief from the distressing psychological and physical symptoms of PTSD. Painting, drawing and sculpting promote positive feelings and help veterans overcome negative emotions like shame and guilt. 

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Honor in art (photo: Boulder Crest Retreat)

The power of art is exemplified by the experience of a veteran who recently completed a seven-day combat stress recovery program at Boulder Crest Retreat, a privately funded wellness center in Bluemont, Va. In addition to equine, recreational and other forms of education and group therapy, art is used to process trauma and its complex emotions.

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Hans Christian Anderson said, “Where words fail, music speaks.” You’d be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t experience a reduction in stress hormones or increase in mood after singing along to a few favorite tunes. 

Power in creativity (photo: Boulder Crest Retreat)

Music therapy is by no means a new concept. What is relatively new, however, is the use of music and songwriting to help veterans heal from their psychological wounds.     

The organization Songwriting With Soldiers offers retreats in which professional musicians are paired with service members to write songs. These relationships produce unique musical compositions based on the service members’ combat and life experiences. 

Moving forward through music (photo: Boulder Crest Retreat)

As noted by the organization, veterans are able “to tell their stories, rebuild trust, release pain, and forge new bonds” through these collaborative ventures. A testimonial posted on its website by a participant and volunteer makes this point.

“Many of my friends ask me, ‘How did you find such peace and healing when writing about some of the darkest days of your life?’ For me, it’s about bringing those dark days to the surface and acknowledging those emotions and memories.”

Relief from PTSD doesn’t have to come from a pill bottle or therapy room. Granted, for many veterans, medication and talk therapy play a crucial role in recovery. But effective paths to growth and resilience can be found in the less intrusive and more comfortable, familiar, and creative areas of life.