Treating Trauma

wellness soldierLocal man looks to develop herbal remedy for post-traumatic stress disorder

Ten years ago, John found himself experiencing extreme anxiety in social situations and having trouble sleeping. When he did sleep, he was waking up with night terrors. He was 23, and fresh out of a five-year stint in the U.S. military, including six months in combat in Iraq.

“When I got out, there was no transition therapy or anything. This was 2004, and I wasn’t offered any kind of psychological help on the way out, nor was I advised on what I should do,” he says.

Although he was never officially diagnosed, John, who didn’t want his real name used for legal reasons, thinks he was likely experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a severe anxiety disorder caused by psychological trauma that, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, up to 20 percent of soldiers returning from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom experience. Symptoms like heightened anxiety, panic attacks and proclivity toward substance abuse lead many to search for treatment wherever they can find it, sometimes even down less conventional avenues. Even though he was in psychotherapy, it was the illegal drug MDMA that John says was most effective in relieving his combat-related feelings of guilt and anxiety, and enabled him to reintegrate and connect with those around him.

One Vietnam veteran in Santa Cruz, self-titled “master herbalist” Elijah Free of Earth Friend Herb Co., is looking for a drug-free cure for PTSD, and claims to have an herbal concoction comprised of hawthorn berries and ginger root that can counter the biochemical processes behind PTSD. An ounce of Free’s solution, Cortisol-EASE, comes in a medicine dropper for $20 on Amazon. Whether or not herbal remedies like Free’s can actually curb the disorder’s symptoms remains difficult to gauge, but Free says a medical study for veterans is currently under way. According to Free, PTSD is caused when cortisol levels repeatedly spike in the body in extremely stressful situations, and then remain chronically high.

“Think back in human history,” says Gary Dunn, licensed psychologist and director of Counseling and Psychological Services at UCSC. “If your ancestors were confronted with something like a tiger, they’d have to work that situation out or they’d get killed.”

The fight or flight response is the body’s way of priming itself to cope with traumatic situations. The process begins in the brain, where the amygdala sets off a chain of biochemical reactions. The adrenal gland secretes adrenaline, which is responsible for the initial reactions to trauma, like heightened heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, takes a little longer to kick in. But when it does, it suppresses the immune and digestive systems, freeing up energy for fighting and fleeing.

“Our bodies respond the same way as they did for our ancestors,” says Dunn. “Your heart starts beating faster, you break a sweat and your body starts producing corticosteroids. Those compounds are good in the moment, but not so good over time.” If cortisol levels remain consistently high, the body suffers. The immune system grows weak, the heart becomes taxed and the risk of contracting chronic diseases climbs.

“We all have our minor traumas,” says Dunn. “They could be car accidents or negative experiences with people. Our tendency is to talk to our friends and family members about those traumas. And that’s a great way to turn them from active into passive memories.”

The same method applies to more intense traumas, says Dunn. By revisiting the memory with a loved one or therapist, pain and anxiety can give way to acceptance and calmness of mind. Exposure therapy can also help, in which a patient incrementally confronts greater and greater triggers until their anxiety desists.  

“Imagine a person who was assaulted in an elevator,” says Dunn. “If they’re avoiding elevators, they can begin treatment by imagining pressing an elevator button or getting on an elevator while they’re in a fully relaxed state.” Dunn explained that he trains his patients to achieve relaxation through breath control and mindfulness meditation. “The idea is to help them unlearn their traumatic experience, then relearn that they are actually safe.”

Another treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy. “For a lot of people,” says Dunn, “the problem is cognitive. What are they telling themselves about the event, about the experience, that contributes to their avoidance?” The focus of cognitive behavioral therapy, which the United States Department of Defense regards as standard treatment for PTSD, is to alter the victim’s thought process and behavior when dealing with their trauma. Therapists like Dunn help victims to navigate their ideas and feelings so they can identify harmful, anxiety-producing thought patterns and strive toward less stressful states of mind.

For more information on Elijah Free’s herbal remedies visit bringourvetsallthewayhome.org. PHOTO: Many veterans returning from war struggle to reintegrate into society, and an estimated one in five veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

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