Many people already know that exercising and being outdoors can provide a mood boost and improve an overall sense of well-being. For veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, it can be a life-changing experience. Of the 2 million vets suffering from PTSD, half drop out of traditional treatment plans or don’t seek help at all. However, research shows that an approach called “adventure therapy” can help diminish the frequency of flashbacks or panic attacks associated with PTSD.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental and emotional condition that can strike months after experiencing or seeing a life-threatening event. This is typically associated with military combat, but many other situations can bring it on, including being attacked, an auto accident, the death of a loved one, and a number of other situations that induce trauma. These events leave the afflicted person with overwhelming feelings of shock, fear, anxiety, anger, or unease.
How Can Outdoor Experiences Help Vets with PTSD?
Mindfulness is an important element of an effective therapeutic technique called dialectical behavior therapy, according to the Crockett Foundation, a nonprofit veteran support organization. This therapy is used to assist veterans with PTSD in acknowledging chronic symptoms and unwelcome feelings so that they can improve their outlook and function better in daily life. The techniques help vets accept highly uncomfortable situations. Acceptance, in turn, can rein in many of the struggles that accompany PTSD.
As part of the therapy, veterans living with PTSD are encouraged to spend time outdoors and enjoy nature’s healing. Exercise also boosts the body’s production of endorphins, which generate a feeling of pleasure. And activities that involve physical challenge, camaraderie, and achievement of an objective can resonate with vets who found those things rewarding during their military service. Combining these beneficial elements can help alleviate some of the symptoms of PTSD.
Alone or in a Group?
Whether you embark on this journey of healing solo or in a group, with family or strangers, depends on the ultimate goal of the outing. Adventure therapy with strangers allows you to concentrate on the experience without the distraction of family, friends, and everyday life clouding the water. However, entire families often are affected by PTSD, so getting away with a spouse, children, siblings, or parents also can be a great chance to bond and form positive memories.
An individualised treatment program includes only the participant and an adventure therapist. It involves a holistic approach to treatment with creative activities that encourage a wide range of feelings and emotions.
Which Programs are Recommended?
Hundreds or thousands of programs and activities across the United States can benefit veterans recovering from PTSD, including the one credited with starting the movement, Outward Bound. Below are just a few; choose the ones that appeal to you.
- Outward Bound for Veterans assists service members and recent vets in adjusting to civilian life via wilderness courses that leverage teamwork and the natural world as a healing force.
- All military members have free access to 2,000 public parks and recreation sites, thanks to a program called America the Beautiful. Look for locations near you and get the pass to start your adventures as soon as possible.
- Sierra Club Outdoors provides a number of activities for active service members, vets, and their families. Additionally, vets and family members get 10 percent off the club’s national outings.
- Operation Purple Program, sponsored by the National Military Family Association, send the children of military families to summer camp with kids from other military families.
- The Rites of Passage Ranch is a long-term care program for survivors of traumatic experiences. Residents enjoy a safe, open environment that frees them to learn coping skills to overcome negative life events. This program is not limited to military participation, which may be preferable to some vets.
- There are a number of adaptive programs that are suitable for disabled vets with amputations or mobility issues.
- Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba trains wounded warriors for the rewarding sport of scuba diving to facilitate rehabilitation and enhance mobility.
Take it On the Road
Because of the number and location of these programs all around the country, you have the option to travel to participate in them. Don’t be afraid to take some time to explore on your own, if that’s what you need to do. (Remember to check in periodically with those who will miss you.) And before you head out for a longer period, make sure you’ve done your homework for a more enjoyable experience. Sublet your apartment if you’ll be gone for a while, find a place to store your stuff, and plan your route.
If you’re flexible and don’t mind relocating, you might even find a sweet spot during your travels and wish to stay. Check out top places to relocate near national wonders for access to nature and adventure year-round.
Bring the Adventure Home
If you’re looking for a solution closer to home, how about your own backyard? Nature is everywhere, after all. An American Ninja-style obstacle course gives you a chance to build something — which can be therapeutic in its own right — then practice on it. Few things help build confidence like mastering a difficult physical challenge, and this method can also offer connection and fun when you invite friends over to try it out with you.
However a vet decide to address PTSD symptoms, it’s important to remember that outdoor therapy is meant to be a supplement and not a substitute for regular treatment options. While adventures can provide a change of place and pace to help boost your outlook, continuing to work with professionals in a therapeutic program is important for steady, daily integration and progress. There are numerous tools at your disposal to work toward long-term recovery, so use all that are helpful.
By Brad Miller, TheMilitaryGuide.org