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Using mindfulness to combat PTSD in veterans


Pepperdine University School of Law recently hosted the Access to Justice for Veterans: Coordinated Responses of a Grateful Nation conference. The conference featured keynote speakers, panel discussions, and a special screening of the film “Thank You for Your Service.” Both the presenters and attendees aimed to help develop responsiveness and accessibility to justice for veterans.

A panel discussion titled “Use of Mindfulness Practices to Inspire Post-Traumatic Growth in Justice” demonstrates some of the innovative topics covered at the conference. This panel discussion’s overarching theme was expanding the use of grounding and mindfulness techniques in the rehabilitation process for veterans, specifically for those currently in Veterans Treatment Court. The panel was comprised of three experts: William Rodriguez, a three-time veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and clinical social worker; Tracie Gunderson, creator of a veteran-specific mindfulness program at New Beginnings Counseling Center in Santa Barbara, Calif.; and Travis Bell, a former air traffic controller, attorney, Air Force veteran, and graduate of the New Beginnings Counseling Center veterans program.

Rodriguez explained post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans has a neurological foundation. Specifically, individuals affected by PTSD will face a decrease in the volume of their brains’ hippocampus region of up to 33 percent. Because the hippocampus regulates learning and creating new memories, the decrease in hippocampal volume is one factor in PTSD’s severity and the extent to which recovery may be hindered for a particular veteran. Veterans suffering from PTSD also experience overactive amygdala function. In effect, the amygdala has been specifically conditioned through trauma and contributes to a veteran’s “fight, flight, or freeze” response in specific situations.

Mindfulness practices are extremely helpful in reconditioning the amygdala. Specifically, mindfulness forces individuals to slow things down and decrease the frequency and duration of limbic responses or outbursts. When the amygdala’s potential for over-activity is regulated, recovering veterans find it easier to learn and form new memories, which combats the hippocampus’ decrease in activity.

According to Rodriguez, “When we talk about mindfulness, we are talking about ‘being’ and ‘recognizing that we are recognizing.’ Once we are able to do this, we have a choice, and it becomes an empowerment model.” Furthermore, mindfulness practices allow veterans to “be safe and be aware,” and when they realize that they have a choice as to how they respond to a particular situation, they can modify their behavior and move toward recovery. Rodriguez elaborated that veterans afflicted with PTSD can find it difficult to navigate legal avenues necessary for obtaining treatment given the very specific conditions that must be demonstrated in order to receive appropriate treatment under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5. Nevertheless, he advocates for the use of mindfulness techniques in treating veterans because they tend to be both practical and effective across a broad spectrum of cases.

Gunderson, a leader in the New Beginnings treatment program for veterans, explained evidence that shows how mindfulness helps with PTSD, anxiety, and depression in the rehabilitation of veterans as well as the general population. In Gunderson’s weekly mindfulness class for veterans, she uses techniques such as emotional identification, journaling, and self-soothing exercises. Travis Bell, an Air Force veteran, attorney, and recent graduate of Gunderson’s program described the class by saying that, “It was a lifesaver. My first day in the class was the happiest day of my life because I knew that I was finally going to get some help.” Each panel member further explained that the mindfulness techniques veterans are learning are critical as they move through the process of Veterans Treatment Court.

The overall theme of the Justice for Veterans conference was gratitude. As a nation and as a community, the intense and sincere gratitude that we feel in our hearts for veterans and those currently serving our country is something with which we must never lose touch. With this in mind, Pepperdine University has a stated goal of honoring veterans through its implementation of the Yellow Ribbon Program, which allows veterans to attend Pepperdine’s various schools tuition-free, and through educational experiences like the Justice for Veterans conference. The larger Malibu community where Pepperdine is located also is committed to serving and appreciating veterans. For example, Rick Mullen, Malibu Fire Captain, current city council candidate, and a veteran who served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Gulf War, said, “I am sympathetic to the evolution of one’s mind after service or after someone returns from war. Nowadays, even people who are ardently against war, are clear to distinguish that the servicemen and women deserve gratitude, support, and recognition.”

While veterans and those currently serving are inherently deserving of gratitude, the magnitude and power of gratitude is two-fold. In fact, Rodriguez explained that gratitude is the single most functional tool to be utilized in the healing process facilitated by mindfulness. Rodriguez and others, through journaling or verbalizing, use gratitude practices to bring the mind back to the present. When our hearts are continually focused on giving thanks for all the things we have, the mind is forced to operate in the present and is free from the painful memories of the past and the anxiety caused by future uncertainty.

In fact, gratitude is a functional tool not only in expressing our respect and remembrance to those who served our country but also in cultivating our own mental health. More specifically, gratitude is a gift that allows us to focus on the present and free ourselves of the mental burdens caused by a variety of afflictions like PTSD, anxiety, and depression. According to Cicero, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” In this season of thanksgiving and appreciation for veterans and servicemen and women, it is important to bring our minds back to that appreciation so that we can remain mindful of the ultimate sacrifice that freedom requires.

Like many veterans who use mindfulness techniques to heal, when we practice gratitude bravely and honestly, our hearts and minds can truly be free.

Elisabeth Johnson Elisabeth Johnson is a 2L at Pepperdine University School of Law, a class representative on Student Bar Association, and a staff editor for the Journal of Business Entrepreneurship and the Law. She operates a small business and works in politics at the local and state levels.