Finding the time to quiet the mind
August 3, 2012
Dr. Cynthia Hamilton bobs slightly on an exercise ball as she taps out a few key strokes on her computer. Her quirky office chair matches the informal space -- sprawling art hovering over her work station and sounds of bubbling water brimming from a fish tank.
Her office at the Soldier Family Medical Center on Fort Bliss is dark. The shades are closed, and cooling air helps to give the provider a respite away from the fluorescent-lit halls of the clinic.
Hamilton smiles. This is where it happens, she says.
In this small, dark, cool room is where she leads Soldiers and family members in group exercises meant to calm the mind.
"Just sitting down and relaxing. Just sitting and relaxing," said one Fort Bliss Soldier, a member of a TBI group that meets with Hamilton for mind-body medicine skills.
The most important thing the Soldier took away, he said, was just that: relaxing.
In September, researchers with the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command and Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System will complete a two-year study on mind-body skill groups.
Researchers have been observing how the skill groups -- developed by The Center for Mind-Body Medicine -- affect veterans who experienced stressful war-related situations and who display symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.
Does it improve their symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety? Will it help to reduce anger? Does it improve quality of life and quality of sleep? And the big question, will it result in posttraumatic growth?
These are all questions cited by researchers in the brief summary of the randomized study initiated in September 2010.
Mind-body medicine is a focus on self-care and self-awareness. Conveyed in group settings it includes the use of guided imagery, drawings and writings, self awareness, meditation, breathing exercises, stress management and biofeedback.
In her office, Hamilton lays out three sheets of paper with child-like, stick-figure drawings. The images sketched by a skills group member illustrate an internal path of discovery for one Soldier.
The drawing exercise is just one tool Hamilton uses during group.
The family care doctor was trained in the Healing Our Troops program at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine -- an organization established by James Gordon, M.D., who is also a principal investigator on the Army's mind-body skills study.
In the last three years, the Department of Defense and the Army in particular have called for a more holistic approach to medicine in the military.
A 2009 Army Pain Management Task Force, chartered by then Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, has seen the establishment of interdisciplinary pain management clinics throughout the Army.
And in June 2011, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury published "Mind-Body Skills for Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System." The DCOE paper focuses on mind-body health practices.
Though fluid and abstract, the concept of mind-body is based in an emerging science of the autonomic nervous system.
The ANS functions independent of conscious awareness -- i.e. the regulation of organs and system functions that maintain heart rate, blood pressure and perspiration.
According to the DCOE, "mounting research over the past three decades suggests a relationship between emotions and changes in the ANS."
With two components -- the sympathetic and parasympathetic -- the ANS provides a person with two reactive options.
The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for fight, flee or freeze and becomes dominant in stressful situations. Physical signs of SNS activation include increased heart rate and raised blood pressure.
The parasympathetic nervous system prepares the body for rest and digest in relaxing situations. Signs of PNS dominance include decreased heart rate and warm and flushed skin.
Stress can occur when either the SNS or PNS is improperly dominant over the other.
The DCOE notes that while most functions of ANS are involuntary, respiration can be directly manipulated. As such, breath is the primary function of the ANS over which humans can exert control.
At Fort Bliss, Hamilton begins every mind-body skills group session with meditation and breathing exercises.
In July, Hamilton began to reach out to Fort Bliss beneficiaries interested in a new way to combat stress, to combat anxiety and to combat the overwhelming emotions that can drag down a person's health.
"It was taking me out of my comfort zone and putting me in a new comfort zone," said one TBI Soldier who opted to attend a second session of the one session a week, 8-week skills group.
The key, said Hamilton, is for group members to realize that they have more control of their selves than they know.
"There is no separating our mind from our body," Hamilton said.