Post Traumatic Healing & Stress - a Matter of Life and Death

From the experiences of Chaplain Gary Stone

Synopsis: If we can better understand health and disease, and choose to be proactive in a holistic health programme, we can counter distress, develop resilience, and maintain wellbeing in the longer term. The experiences of life are great teachers Over many years as a Chaplain to the Royal Australian Regiment Association and as a member of the RSL , I have received too many notices of the death of veterans, dying in their 40s , 50s and 60s, mostly from cancer , but dying well before the age that they should have the lived to.

Like my other brethren in the veterans community, the early passing of these friends saddened me but I did not consider that much could be done about it. Additionally many of these men had struggled for many years with a plethora of other health issues stemming from their military service.

Then in September 2012, at age 60, I received a diagnosis that I had cancer. To say I was shocked is an understatement. I have always maintained a very fit and active life. I have never smoked. I have never even been drunk, though I enjoy couple of glasses of red wine of an evening and an occasional beer. There is no history of cancer in my family. My parents and grandparents lived into their 90s. After biopsies were taken, the doctor indicated to me that my cancer was growing aggressively and indeed would be inoperable within six months and that I would be dead soon after without immediate surgery. Indeed from a medical perspective, surgery was the only response offered to me. The powerlessness of waiting for surgery and the fear that cancer could be growing in other places prompted me to get to understand more what is going on inside my body, and see what I could do to help myself.

I am open to complementary therapies and a range of tests conducted by a naturopath, remedial masseur and reflexologist identified that my body was highly acidic, that my liver and kidneys were clogged with toxins, and that my body was deficient in a number of vitamins and minerals as well as the “feel good” Serotonin hormone. I prayed for God’s guidance, and started searching the Internet for articles about cancer and its causes. After reading numerous books from the library, and meeting cancer survivors who had utilised a range of complementary therapies I became aware of a range of healthy living recommendations that I previously had no awareness of. This gave me hope, and lifted my spirits.

I became more aware of how interconnected the body, mind and soul are, in terms of health. Like many other veterans, I had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following my service in the Iran Iraq war. Doctors then, prescribed medication and cognitive behaviour therapy. These treatments helped manage the symptoms of anxiety and depression, but these did little to diminish hyper-vigilance, hyper-arousal and hyper-activity. These had become a feature of my life. I also had a range of other physical problems that got worse whenever I was under stress. I came to realise that accumulated stress was killing me!

What I was to learn through my own research was that my PTSD symptoms were releasing acids, cortisol and enzymes into my body that were immobilising my immune system and allowing cancer to grow. At the same time a diet with too much sugar, wheat and dairy products was clogging up my digestive system causing me to put on weight and develop a range of other illnesses . The distress of anxiety saw me living with a “battlefield in my mind” that spilled over into my body and soul, and saw me react inappropriately at times with those around me.

As a Chaplain of course I have ministered to many people with a whole range of problems, but I was also aware of how disparate and parochial the various health providers can be, particularly in dismissing alternate or complementary therapies, and how most veterans with multiple health issues were not getting integrated care plans.

Moreover, involvement with health care providers focused on “treatments” for immediate symptoms with less emphasis on preventative health measures – promoting wellness into the future. I have become convinced that a coordinated holistic approach to health is needed, starting with myself, and my taking responsibility for my own part in rehabilitation and restoration of wellness.

Following surgery, (and a near death experience with Peritonitis caused by accidental rupture of my bowel in the surgery) I am now clear of cancer for the time being, but I am conscious that I must take “intentional” steps to provide for my future health and avoid cancer appearing somewhere else. I look forward to the future with some hope that I might be able to not only live a little bit longer myself, but also through sharing this information with others I might able to make a contribution to the improvement of veterans health generally. Adopting a self managed holistic programme I have lost 16 kg, regaining and sustaining a fighting weight of 75 kg that I had as a 30 year old company commander, and I feel the healthiest I’ve been in 20 years. I have had to ‘re-balance” and “re- create” a healthy lifestyle that involves less work , minimizes distress, and incorporates more self care for my body, mind and soul.

The essence of the problems facing veterans.

Many veterans have had years of exposure to an accumulation of stress, distress and trauma, both physical and mental as well as wounds to the soul. The turbulence of soldiering on families has often impacted in broken and troubled relationships. This domestic stress adds to operational stress, and compounds people’s problems. It causes the release of too much cortisol and acid into our systems. Pride and ego cause us to want to “soldier on” despite our disease, in the vain illusion that we can tough it out and we’ll get through this maze of problems. But our bodies minds and souls are little different to the vehicles and equipments that we spent countless hours servicing and maintaining in the military. We need maintenance, repair, and sometimes even a rebuild , but we don’t seem to realize this until we breakdown completely!

In addition to a plethora of physical injuries to backs, knees and feet, a growing number of veterans have undiagnosed and untreated mental health injury and illnesses , which also manifest in secondary issues of degraded workplace performance, sleep disorders, poor dietary practices, obesity and inappropriate actions including alcohol and drug abuse . Unfortunately the stigma of mental health sees most people with mental health issues attempt to mask their issues, and even friends will not generally be aware of the “submerged” issues. It is difficult to identify a genuinely “wounded soul” or to know how to respond. Withdrawal from society is a common response, where a person deteriorates without others knowing. The reality is that veterans become wounded in body, mind and soul and can slip into a victim mentality where the only recourse is to seek DVA financial disability support, and just “soldier” on with their health problems untreated.

Some veterans don’t trust medical systems and will rarely present themselves for treatment. People don’t know what they don’t know, and don’t understand what is going on in them. In this unknowing, they can choose in appropriate responses or miss out on simple therapies and behaviours that would help them.

Understanding stress , distress and post traumatic stress (PTS) reactions

Most veteran’s health issues have their sources in the additional stress that service life entails. An understanding of what happens to veterans can assist in countering distress, developing resilience and maintaining wellbeing.

Stress, and the memories of past trauma, tenses our muscles, deposits toxins in our bodies, and can build up to chronic levels which impacts on the body’s immune system and can become life threatening. Stress assists in improving performance initially, but sustained or intense stress leads to distress whereupon performance starts to degrade, leading us to anxiety and depression, and tempting us to self medicate with alcohol or drug abuse. Secondary outcomes can be anger, violence, withdrawal, relationship conflicts and suicide.

The physiological outcomes of stress in the body include adrenalin release to stimulate our muscles, heighten our awareness, accentuating hypervigilance and increased heart rate as the body prepares for fight and flight. Cortisol is released to shut down other body functions, so the muscles can fight. This is useful if we really have to fight physically, but otherwise leads to distress when we don’t.

The physiological outcomes of distress include serotonin depletion (our “feel good” hormone), survival responses, mental overload, confused thinking, performance degradation, and physical exhaustion. We become vulnerable to a range of infections and other health problems from a degraded immune system.

Experience of a life threatening event and/ or sustained exposure to distress can bring about a permanent automatically triggerable distress response (also known as PTSD); normal bodily functioning is reprogrammed to be ‘on alert “for further life threatening events indefinitely.

The physiological outcomes of post traumatic stress include sustained hyper-vigilance, hyper-arousal, and hyper-sensitivity. In the absence of any actual stressors, sights, sounds, experiences and smells similar to those experienced in earlier life threatening events, trigger hormonal releases in the brain and vital organs. The body sub consciously and autonomically reacts to these triggers, via the amygdala in our brain, that shuts out the frontal cortex’s logical thinking and readies the body for perceived life threatening attack, moving it into fight or flight mode. The individual starts re experiencing the fear / anger etc associated with earlier events. Repeated stress reactions overload the vital organs with cortisol immobilizing the immune system.

Education/awareness of this process can assist the individual in taking counter strategies to calm the physiological response and limit the wash of cortisol into the system, before the symptoms become acute. Persistent (and unchecked ) PTS reactions, particularly when actual new stressors affect the person , exhaust the body and expose it to the development of the illnesses of anxiety and depression, which have a debilitating life of their own . In the absence of hope or spiritual frameworks, the person experiences wounded ness of the soul, where life ceases to have meaning , the person loses a sense of identity and purpose, and indeed the will to live.

Years of stress responses manifest in breakdowns in many of the body’s systems and premature chronic illnesses and death. Yes stress is a killer, and is wounding many more service people than bombs or bullets on the battlefield.

Post traumatic Healing , Growth and developing Resilience , through a “Well being” regime.

As a result of my research, I believe veterans need:

  • to be educated to the nature of the health challenges they face, understand the threat components and the need to develop counter strategies
  • to be encouraged to choose to proactively attend to their health through holistic actions.
  • to care for their bodies through a good diet , exercise, rest and recreation
  • to care for their minds by minimising negative inputs and exposure to “distressors”, and optimise stress reduction strategies.
  • to care for their souls by embracing nourishing world views and spiritual practices.
  • to maintain an ongoing holistic “Wellbeing” regime in daily life.

A suggested and proven “Wellbeing” regime involves a range of components – in summary :

Caring for the body

  • Exercise daily to release endorphins and produce more serotonin hormone. Whenever distressed, reduce a runaway heart rate with deep slow breathing and meditation.
  • Eat regular and appropriate foods – particularly fresh fruit and vegetables, drink lots of water, and minimize alcohol and caffeine (which acts as a depressant in large quantities),
  • Avoid processed and fatty foods, and cut out sugar in all its forms.
  • See your doctor when /if you experience anxiety or depressive symptoms
  • Be open to the complementary therapies of chiropractic, therapeutic massage and reflexology, to release tension and restore energy flow through the systems of the body.
  • Be open to taking medication , e.g. Zoloft. Is not addictive and helps in stabilising mood.
  • Avoid inappropriate self medication with alcohol or non prescription drugs

Caring for the mind

  • Be open to learning cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) – conduct a mental reality check.
  • Recognise and avoid all unnecessary negative inputs to your life.
  • Remove yourself from persistently stressful environments and individuals
  • Be a “good finder “– name daily all the good things you see in life (journalling is best)
  • Read uplifting and nourishing stories and teachings.
  • Learn to relax muscles and breathe deeply, to re-engage your frontal cortex logical thinking.
  • Become attentive and “mindful” of the present moment and your pleasant and safe surroundings.

Caring for the soul

  • Find and embrace a spirituality or “World view “ that is life giving.
  • Be open to the advice of wise teachers / mentors.
  • Be open to discovering and trusting in a “higher power” to assist you in life.
  • Share your experiences with friends and be open to mutual support
  • Invest significant time in key relationships. Become a better “lover”.
  • Engage in team/group activities – e.g. sporting clubs , interest groups
  • Practice meditation to get in touch with your soul.
  • Treat yourself to soothing music that will nurture your soul.
  • Choosing to be healthy and having sustained commitment
  • Desiring to be healthy, like desiring to lose weight, is easier said than done. Preferably we won’t have to have a “cancer scare “ to jerk us into sustained action, but most people reading this far probably already know they have problems to address, and hopefully this information will assist in making appropriate choices. We may need a coach or mentor, perhaps our partner, to help us get onto, and stay on, a healthy pathway.

Research indicates that it takes from at least 28 days to many months, to change behaviours and my experience is that if we can show that amount of patience – we will in time see measurable results, like loss of excess weight, better sleep and a calmer mind, which will give us the encouragement to keep at it. I feel liberated now after 25 years of struggle to enjoy the remainder of my life, and feel I am getting even better by the day.

Conclusion

We get sick and “dis-eased” because we have chosen or let stressful or toxic environments to affect our body, mind and soul. While stress and distress are normal elements of life, when experienced in the extreme they will have debilitating consequences, affecting our whole person.

Rather than just react to sickness when it occurs, a better way to live life is through a wellness model where we intentionally promote healthy living practices to avoid disease. To develop resilience for future stressful situations, we must examine the way we nurture or abuse our body mind and soul, and make choices and commitments to engage in wellbeing practices as a matter of daily living.

Upon experiencing distressing situations, we must recognize the potential for illness, and initiate wellbeing strategies immediately.

May peace be with you – Your Chaplain, Gary Stone


Gary has served continuously in the Army since 1970, with 26 years as an infantryman and 18 years as a chaplain. He has been deployed on operations to Malaysia, Fiji Coup, Iran-Iraq, EastTimor, Bougainville, Asian Tsunami, Solomon Islands and Timor Leste. He lives in The Gap in Brisbane with his wife Lynne. Their two sons Michael and Paul are also Army officers with extensive operational experience in Timor Leste.

 

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