Every year on Veterans Day we celebrate the contributions that our brothers and sisters in the military have made to our society. However, there’s another discussion that might even supersede the celebration: How we help veterans manage their experiences (and, trauma) during and after their enlistment?
The media is full of stories of veterans who had difficulty returning to civilian post enlistment. Some of those stories are full of hope, but many of them illustrate the challenges inherent in dealing with traumatic experiences in an environment where few people have shared similar experiences. We know this first-hand because some of these veterans are our students and private clients.
So the question becomes, how do we help our siblings in uniform cope with the toll their sacrifices have taken on their mental and emotional well-being? How do we ease their trauma during their time in the military, and how do we help them cultivate grace in their transition to civilian life?
For years, the Neurosculpting® Institute has provided help for professionals who deal with trauma every day, including police officers, emergency medical technicians and current and former members of the military. The institute offers tools to navigate through post-traumatic stress and maintain balance and perspective; here, we share three of our most popular tools for managing trauma, in honor of Veterans Day.
1. Name It And Tame It
This is a tool that many neuroscientists, psychologists and therapists recommend to help provide perspective about your trauma. It’s in the “so simple that it sounds too easy to work” category, but neurologically, there’s a good reason why putting a name to your current emotional state can help detach you from those very same strong feelings you’re describing.
Here’s how it works: Focus on your body and the emotions and physical sensations you’re experiencing, then verbally identify them. For example, you might say, “I’m feeling anxious. My stomach feels knotted, and my shoulders are tight.” Or perhaps, “I’m feeling angry. My hands are in fists, and my jaw is clenched.”
This isn’t always immediately easy to do. You might find it helpful to start with your body parts, scanning yourself head to toe and noticing where you experience stress, and then afterward try to identify the connected emotion.
It might also sound a little bit silly, but here’s why it works: When you’re experiencing post-traumatic stress, something has triggered your amygdala and your limbic system, which is essentially your “panic” mode. Your brain and body are being flooded with neurotransmitters that are priming you to fight, flee or freeze, and you are connecting your current (probably non-threatening) situation and environment with an extremely threatening situation and environment from your past.
The quickest and easiest way out of this state of mind is via the prefrontal cortex. By stimulating the area of the brain that solves problems, makes connections and generates empathy, you are sending the signal to your amygdala and limbic system that it can relax, and your fight-flight-freeze mechanisms will switch off.
Making statements of observation is a specialized activity of the prefrontal cortex. By naming the physical and emotional sensations you are experiencing, you’re shutting down the “panic mode” area of the brain and engaging the problem-solving area of the brain. You will find that the very act of naming your physical and emotional responses will calm you down — and tame those responses.
2. Change Your Diet
Sometimes the last thing you want to do is cut something out of your diet. We get it! However, if post-traumatic stress is disrupting your life and you’ve tried just about everything, small tweaks to your diet could yield huge results.
So instead of cutting certain foods out of your diet, start by adding more brain-boosting foods (and vitamins) to your arsenal. Docosahexaeonic acid (DHA) is hugely important for brain health; you can find it in fish and fish oil (or certain seaweeds for plant-based eaters). Start cooking with coconut oil instead of another vegetable oil and using it in your recipes. Sprinkle turmeric into your recipes and crack some fresh black peppercorns on top of the finished result. Antioxidant foods are a must when dealing with a high-stress situation, as they are a great line of defense against the excess amount of free radicals our cells produce when over-stressed. You might recognize the term “free radicals” from all the times you’ve heard it linked to causes of cancer. Foods like broccoli, blueberries, and cherries are a great place to start. And we have great news for you chocolate lovers! Dark chocolate (preferably low in sugar) is also a great addition to an antioxidant diet.
If you eventually decide you’re ready to start nixing certain foods from your diet, current research indicates that refined sugar and wheat are particularly bad for your brain.
3. Shake It Out
You might have noticed that after a particularly frightening event, your body sometimes experiences tremors. In the wild, if a rabbit is being chased by a predator and makes a narrow escape, it will find a safe, hidden spot after the event and tremble and quake. This action allows the neurochemicals that have accumulated in the brain and the muscles to prepare for fighting, fleeing or freezing — epinephrin (adrenaline), norepinephren and others — to release and dissipate, allowing the rabbit’s body to complete the mobilization response and return to a relaxed state of restoration.
Of course, in real life, human beings rarely allow ourselves the luxury of “shaking it out” after a traumatic event — which means that some of those anxiety-producing, muscle-tightening, stress-enhancing neurotransmitters don’t fully release. And that makes the next stress-related event even more acute.
Even artificial shaking can offer stress relief, especially because when you cue the body through shaking, it often recognizes the stress release happening on a cellular level and takes over, turning those initial consciously induced shaking into actual post-traumatic tremors. These three easy tips can help anyone — veteran and civilian alike — manage post-traumatic stress, but they’re offered up especially to those who have served in the military as a Veterans Day thank-you from the Neurosculpting® Institute.