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Study to Help Women Vets Coping with MST

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three women yoga pose

VA researcher Autumn Gallegos (L) and students Brenda Voorhees (C) and Kelly Lannon practice their Warrior 2 pose during a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center.

by Tom Cramer, VA Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Department of Veterans Affairs is preparing to launch a study this year to determine if a practice called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction can help relieve symptoms of posttraumatic stress in women Veterans suffering from military sexual trauma (MST).

About one in five women in the military will report experiencing sexual trauma while serving their country.

“That’s about 20 percent of women Veterans,” said Dr. Autumn Gallegos, a researcher with VA’s Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention in Canandaigua, NY. “Exposure to MST is a significant public health concern and is associated with both mental and physical health burdens, including risk of suicide.”

Gallegos said the negative mental health consequences of military sexual trauma are extensive, and include posttraumatic stress and other anxiety disorders, depression and substance abuse.

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

“A traumatic event, such a sexual assault, has the potential to detach you from your own body,”Gallegos explained. “After all, your body itself was the crime scene. So, one of our major goals is to help you learn how to re-connect with your body, to have your body once again become a resource for you, a source of comfort and peace.”

Women selected for the study will participate in two-hour group sessions, once each week, where they will engage in four mindfulness practices: sitting mediation, walking meditation, mindful movement (similar to yoga poses) and a body scan.

“During a body scan, you’re simply paying very close attention to sensations in different regions of your body,” Gallegos said. “Through meditations that focus on body awareness, participants gradually begin to reconnect to their bodies, to regard their bodies as a source of strength.”

Promoted to Captain

“All these practices are designed to foster a calm, non-judgmental awareness of your sensations and feelings,” she observed. “We call it Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. The idea is to be present in the moment, to be fully aware and alive. And if you can do that, you can choose how you’re going to respond to unpleasant events or memories. You become the captain of your own ship.”

“For women who have been physically and sexually victimized,”she continued, “the practice of reappraising thoughts and physiological sensations with mindful awareness may improve their ability to successfully regulate their emotions, thereby mitigating trauma symptoms. We want to see if this approach to stress reduction is effective for women Veterans who’ve experienced military sexual trauma.”

The Blame Game

Gallegos said that following a sexual assault, victims tend to engage in a lot of self-blame. Along with that, the victim tends to re-experience the event repeatedly, like a broken record playing in her head.

“With Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, you learn to observe yourself and how you’re reacting to a stressful event, or a stressful memory,” the researcher explained. “If you’re able to observe what’s going on inside you, you may be able to train yourself to respond to the stressor in a different way.”

“When all is said and done, we’re teaching you that you have a choice,” she said.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, however, wasn’t developed exclusively for victims of military sexual trauma. Veterans Brenda Voorhees and Kelly Lannon tried it out for other reasons.

Hitting ‘Pause’

Voorhees, an Air Force Veteran who served from 1979 to 1986, recently took a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class designed to help participants improve their heart health.

“When you meditate, you’re silencing the mind,” she said. “Most of the time we’re multi&emdash;tasking, so it’s nice to slow down and do one thing. And now that I’m a bit older, I like slowing down.”

The 59-year-old compared Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction to hitting the ‘pause’ button.

“It helps me slow down and see the world,” she said. “For example, today I went to the post office. There were maybe eight people ahead of me and only one clerk. It was funny watching everybody fidgeting. But instead of getting caught up in the process, I just watched the movie of life unfold.”

“I’m going to need that tomorrow because I’ll be going to the airport,” she laughed.

Let it Be

Kelly Lannon, an Air Force Veteran who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom, said practicing mindful awareness has helped put an end to the sleepless nights she endured after leaving the military.

“I tried medication,” she said, “but I didn’t like it. I wanted to try something more natural.” She’s glad she did.

“Sometimes, when it’s hard to sleep, I do the body scan meditation,” she said. “It makes you focus on what’s going on with your whole body. When you’re doing that, it‘s hard to focus on anything else.”

“If I‘m really stressed out, the negative thoughts will still come in,” she admitted. “But I don’t push them away— that’s what they taught us in the class— not to push them away. So I just let them be.”

“I just continue with the body scan meditation and let the thoughts be there. Eventually they leave. If you try to push them away, that just makes it worse. The more I push them away, the stronger hold they have on me.”

Of the four types of meditation involved with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, the moving meditation is Lannon’s favorite.

“I really like the Yoga,” she said. ”But I haven’t been practicing it on my own. Instead, when I need to slow down during the day, I’ll just sit quietly, close my eyes and breathe. I set aside some time each day to do that.”

As calming as meditation is, however, it can’t compete with Lannon’s absolute favorite stress reduction technique.

“I like a good massage,” she said. “I think that’s wonderful. The only thing is, it’s expensive.”

To learn more about how VA is helping Veterans with PTSD, visit www.ptsd.va.gov.

To find out more about health care services available for Veterans who have experienced MST, visit http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/msthome.asp.