I think we were sharing heartbreak.
We were sharing an urgency for dominion over combat trauma called post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). The number of affected veterans and families is growing. And, as many dedicated care-givers work to find solutions, one fact is emerging: one method of treatment does not fit everyone.
“Individuality,” in fact, has become a guiding principle of new medical efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) to treat PTSD. Armed with an NIH grant, they’re trying to find “alternative” therapies that can complement and individualize conventional (drug-based) treatment. Deep breathing, meditation, chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation, massage, yoga, progressive relaxation, and guided imagery are some of the treatments being tested.
“The need for nondrug treatment options is a significant and urgent public health imperative,” says NCCIH Director Josephine Briggs, MD.
Urgent, because the need for cure is growing, and also because conventional drug treatments aren’t working over the long haul. In many cases, drug dependencies are created instead–without any real cure in sight.
Meeting an individual patient’s needs makes perfect sense. But so far, even some complementary medicine advocates doubt if a truly individualized treatment can result from clinical laboratory research. How can the measurement of symptoms in a laboratory control-group setting accurately determine what will work for an individual? The laboratory approach mostly addresses physical symptoms, not the patient’s unique individuality and whole life experience. Dr. Briggs admits, “a more holistic, patient-centered approach is a major piece of the effectiveness work and it will have to shape our research endeavor,” and adds that NCCIH will attempt to perform research in real-life settings.
Interestingly, there are already examples of work in real-life settings—harbingers of individualization’s deeper potential.
Take, for example, the work of Col. (Ret) Janet Horton, a Christian Science U.S. Army Chaplain, one of the first female chaplains ever called into active duty. Over her 28-year career, she served in various deployments overseas and at the Pentagon (including the day and aftermath of 9/11). She tells of her experience with PTSD-diagnosed soldiers in an online broadcast at spirituality.com.
“We saw some of the folks in Bosnia. Medical teams came in and said the troops had a “PTSD experience” and needed stress debrief. But the troops later said they found it unproductive,” Col. Horton explained. The assumption that a PTSD diagnosis automatically meant that each soldier would suffer the same specific symptoms was often incorrect.
Col. Horton also says she found it unproductive to try to work directly with symptoms at all. The most important thing, she said, “…is to help them look inside themselves and consider what their spiritual identity is, and to see that that includes a natural resiliency. They have strength in that identity that can’t be touched or separated from [by trauma],” because it comes from a Divine Source. It’s “…a strength that is beyond just a brave front of saying ‘OK, I’ve got lots of strength and endurance.’” Col. Horton added that this approach tended to lead toward actual healing, rather than just coping with the symptoms.
In a later interview given to Ocala Publications, Col. Horton shared an example of her “go-straight-to-identity” approach. She was assigned to the Pentagon, serving as the Executive Director of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board. American Airlines Flight 77 struck. Traumatized, injured, and deceased lay on the Pentagon courtyard ground.
Chaplain Horton began speaking to each individually, referring to the spiritual essence of who they were. She came upon one officer she knew personally, including his religious faith. He was physically immobilized and mentally distracted beyond his control. Despite the officer’s serious distraction, Horton appealed directly to his spiritual sense of things. “I read from [the Bible] Romans 8:39 — ‘Neither height, nor depth, nor things present, can separate us from the love of Christ.’ He calmed down after that.” His physical and mental recovery following medical treatment for just a few weeks surprised many.
Is it a leap to look beyond physical symptoms into an untouched spiritual identity? To bypass laboratory testing for a direct focus on the individual’s divine essence?
Understandably, yes. But leaving conventions is a leap in any field of endeavor and is often driven by necessity. And now necessity is pushing the VA and the NCCIH to search beyond convention. Their deepening real-life focus on individuality has the potential to make this “leap” shorter and to lead to practical, new possibilities for our veterans.