Vets Take Deep Breaths

January 17, 2014

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By Lisa Renner

Decades after hippies dabbled in meditation, the practice has found widespread appeal. The military recently started offering meditation to veterans and their families who are struggling to manage chronic stress, pain and other ailments.

The Naval Medical Center in San Diego has been offering courses in Mind Body Medicine since last spring, teaching participants self-care practices designed to increase resiliency under stress.

About 60 people have taken the seven-week Mind Body Medicine course, which focuses on the connection between the mind and physical health. Participants learn how to relax through such methods as meditation and qigong, an ancient Chinese practice that includes breathing and movement exercises.  The students also are introduced to guided imagery and positive thinking and educated in the importance of nutrition and sleep.

Helen Metzger, the head of the Navy Medical Center’s Health and Wellness Department, is an advocate of the Mind Body Medicine program. She learned the benefits of meditation in the 1970s, when she took a transpersonal psychology class that required her to practice every day and keep a journal of her experiences.

“For me, the greatest benefit is awareness – awareness of what my own thought processes are, how I’m perceiving the world, what my assumptions are, my cognitive choices,” she said. “With that awareness, I was able to make mindful decisions- how I wanted to perceive the world, how I wanted to conduct my life.”

The program was inspired by the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and is backed up by scientific research, which shows that reducing stress with relaxation techniques not only decreases the severity and extent of illnesses but can prevent some from occurring in the first place. The course instructors were trained by staff from the Benson-Henry Institute; the institute has also worked with the Army and Air Force.

The Naval Medical Center hopes the program will eventually lead to a reduction in doctor visits, hospitalizations, costly medications and procedures. That is what has happened when others have tried the approach. In one 1990s study in which patients used a mind-body approach to manage arthritis, the result was a 19 percent reduction in pain and a 43 percent reduction in physician visits.

The Mind Body concepts can be difficult for some patients to embrace in the conservative military culture, because they seem exotic and strange. Some people have a hard time understanding why they should meditate. To those new to the idea, it can seem like sitting around doing nothing.

Dr. Mojgan Jahan, a clinical psychologist who leads the Naval Medical Center’s Mind Body Medicine courses, said she presents the program as an option to try, not a mandate. “This is not a religion, it does not require faith,” she said. “We ask them to show up, see what works and what doesn’t.”

As part the course, participants learn about the value of strong social support as a way to make a change. They are invited to weekly meditation groups and offered guided meditation recordings, videos and other resources on a web site.

Navy Commander Ted St. John, a radiation therapy medical physicist, took the course for stress resilience. He’s nearing retirement and is gearing up for that major life change.  He liked the techniques for keeping calm such as taking a breath and pausing between an event and response. The idea is to keep cool rather than lose your temper.

“Once you recognize the power of having that perspective, it feeds on itself,” he said. “You find yourself reinforcing your ability to do it.”

While he had been familiar with many of the ideas before and has meditated for many years, he liked the chance to talk about them with others. “Having these other people in the room and mental health professionals that I greatly respect that gave me more of a reason and feeling of security in my (meditation) practice.”

Fay McGrew, a volunteer qigong master who provides an introduction to qigong at Mind Body Medicine courses and leads a drop-in qigong class, said she’s enjoyed the opportunity to share her knowledge with people who are unfamiliar with the technique.  She teaches therapeutic qigong that includes breathing exercises and simple movements.

“Basically the people feel very empowered because they’re able to relax on their own through following the narrative and breathing exercises,” she said. “They feel a reduction in pain for example. They relax their mind, they relax their body.”

Still, Nicole Champagne, a licensed clinical social worker who leads a meditation group, said it is difficult to get people to come to her sessions. “You’re coming up against the Western form of medicine where you take a pill and maybe you get better,” she said.  “This is outside the box. “

It also takes effort to see results. “If you want to learn to meditate, you have to give your mind a break and you have to practice,” she said. “People don’t give their mind a break. We live in such a fast world these days.”

Dr. Gregory L. Fricchione, the director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, said he’s convinced that the techniques will be helpful to a military population, especially to those deployed and under enormous stress.

“We believe and there’s evidence to suggest that by increasing resiliency, by teaching them to elicit the relaxation response, you’re giving people they’re best chance in remaining healthy,” he said.

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