Yoga helps vets find balance
January 7, 2010
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- For Roslyn Reesemoran, a horrible accident in the early days of the Iraq war remains fresh in her mind.
A platoon sergeant in 2003, Reesemoran was in an Army transportation company, responsible for refueling trucks that carried critical supplies to Soldiers.
One day while out on a mission, as usual, small children ran up to the trucks and asked for food and water.
But on this particular day, one of the trucks accidentally ran over a small child.
"To see that kid die just tore my heart out," said Reesemoran, who is now retired from the Army. "I had a real problem after that being around kids. When I got back, I was really angry."
She went to the Veterans Administration seeking medical care in 2008 after her retirement and, like 20 percent of today's combat veterans, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Specifically, she was suffering from bereavement and anxiety, doctors told her.
"I had been suppressing all my memories," Reesemoran said.
That's when she was invited to try a new program at Fort Jackson, one that uses the ancient practice of yoga to help Soldiers who have been diagnosed with PTSD decrease physical and mental tension.
Soldiers who are diagnosed with PTSD or other anxiety disorders are referred to the program. About 15 Soldiers have participated in Fort Jackson's program so far.
Skeptical at first, Reesemoran gave it a try and was immediately impressed.
"It works," she said. "We're learning to deal with those memories that were suppressed."
Alison Thirkield, a clinical psychologist with Joint Mental Health Services, Moncrief Army Community Hospital, works with Soldiers like Reesemoran who have post-deployment issues such as PTSD. To treat PTSD among combat veterans, the military is exploring alternative methods, such as yoga.
Yoga uses meditation, deep relaxation, gentle stretching and breathing to reduce physical, emotional and mental tension. It has been found to be useful in helping people to deal with anxiety caused by traumatic events.
"Yoga is a different way of getting in and trying to address these symptoms," Thirkield said. "Yoga can teach Soldiers very concrete relaxation strategies. It's grounded in many of the same principles that therapy is grounded in."
Walter Reed Army Medical Center treats Soldiers diagnosed with PTSD with yoga at its specialized care program. First introduced at Walter Reed in 2006 as part of the Army's aggressive approach in dealing with the mental and physical problems facing many returning combat veterans, yoga is now used at treatment centers across the Army.
Yoga can be very beneficial in calming the autonomic nervous system, which controls a person's "fight-or-flight" response to stress, Thirkield said.
"The fight-or-flight system in combat gets activated so often that it sometimes gets stuck," Thirkield said. "Yoga is a very effective way to quiet down the autonomic nervous system."
Ginger Doughty, a yoga instructor in Columbia, has been working with Soldiers suffering from anxiety, depression, insomnia and other symptoms of PTSD, as well as chronic pain. She leads a two-hour group class once a week on post. Doughty said yoga's emphasis on the mind-body connection helps PTSD sufferers deal with their symptoms.
"It's a life-changing experience," Doughty said. "You still have problems, but yoga teaches you to flow around them a little better."
Yoga's emphasis on breathing techniques and proper body alignment can help Soldiers with PTSD deal better with anxiety attacks, she said.
"Yoga helps them to realize that those feelings will pass," Doughty said. "It teaches them that they already have all the tools they need to get through those episodes."
Doughty said she is convinced that yoga will become a standard tool in dealing with anxiety issues for Soldiers.
"I don't think this will work for everybody, but I firmly believe it will work for most people," she said.
The program has already made a difference in her life, Reesemoran said, helping her to feel more like the person she was before she went to Iraq.
"It's helping me to cope with those old memories," she said. "I've been able to accept the new person that I am and reconnect with the old person I was."