By: Brian J. Klassen, PhD, Road Home Program

Over 300,000 individuals–have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from their experiences in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom. The symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, anger, and social isolation.

Untreated PTSD can alter one’s life trajectory, resulting in what researcher Stevan Hobfall calls a loss spiral or a rapid loss of resources such as lost employment, strained relationships, and a fractured sense of self.

Although there are demonstrably effective treatments for PTSD, these treatments have many shortcomings. There will never be enough qualified therapists to meet the clinical needs of veterans or service members with PTSD.

About 30-40 percent of those who begin these treatments do not complete them. It is clear that we need a new approach.

One solution is to blend traditional trauma-focused psychotherapy with wellness interventions. While so much of traditional trauma-focused psychotherapy is focused on making meaning of the past, these wellness interventions often tackle a more pressing concern: making sense of, and enjoying, the present.

Three Wellness Interventions:

  1. Mindfulness: sitting and noticing one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences over time.
  2. Yoga: control of one’s mind and bodily movement through exercises.
  3. Art Therapy: nonverbal processing, expression, and communication through artistic activities.

I believe that wellness interventions build resilience using what researcher Barbara Frederickson has termed the “Broaden and Build” hypothesis; positive emotions broaden our attention, help us to think more creatively, and consider new possibilities.

A Veteran Testimony

I recently worked with a young OIF veteran who had a history of childhood sexual and physical abuse in addition to daunting combat trauma while deployed to Iraq.  Therapy was tough. Although he knew that facing his painful memories head-on with me would be most helpful, he could not bring himself to do it.

One day, however, he came to my office, a sappy grin on his face.  He held up a bracelet.

He told me, “I know this is silly, doc, but I really enjoyed learning to make this.  It made me wonder what else I could do if I applied myself?”

Within a few weeks, he had painted a memorial to his battle buddy who was killed in action (and whose death the veteran felt responsible for, also known as survivor’s guilt) and presented the painting to his friend’s widow and children.  It was a touching tribute and one that would not have been possible if we had not taken a holistic approach to treatment.

Hear more from the experts of the Road Home Program at our annual International Resilience Summit.

Brian J. Klassen, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center and staff psychologist in the Road Home Program: Center for Veterans and Their Families.  Dr. Klassen’s clinical work involves providing individual and group psychotherapy to both combat veterans and survivors of military sexual trauma (MST).   As a teacher and mentor, Dr. Klassen regularly offers trainings and supervision in best-practices for diagnosing and treating PTSD that have included chaplains, social workers, and psychiatry residents.  He particularly enjoys challenging misperceptions about PTSD as either a character flaw or as a chronic, untreatable condition.  Dr. Klassen’s research and scholarly work is particularly interested in guilt and shame following ethical dilemmas that service members face in war zone situations.  A graduate of Calvin College and Wayne State University, Dr. Klassen completed his clinical training in the PTSD, addiction, and chronic pain clinics of the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chicago.  Read his full bio here.