Trauma yields to yoga therapy Health: Memory of a rape 30 years ago finally relaxes its grip, thanks to a program at the VA Medical Center.

March 03, 1998|By Dawn Fallik | Dawn Fallik,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sandra Young literally cannot let go of the rape that took place more than 30 years ago, when she was a new naval recruit in Rhode Island and he was an officer who offered her a ride home.

She carries the memory around with her as if walking with a heavy burden, feeling the pain in her neck, in her shoulders, up her spine. But Young is feeling a bit lighter recently, with the help of a new yoga therapy program at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Greene Street.

The program, in place for more than a year, aims to teach relaxation techniques for the body as well as the mind, said Kirsten Trabbic, a yoga therapist at the Baltimore VA with a master's degree in clinical psychology.

"We need to make them aware that the mind and body are connected and that if the mind is extremely stressed, it shows in the physical self," she says.

All patients in the VA's Trauma Recovery Unit have two yoga classes a week during the program's two-week inpatient treatment. In addition to group therapy, individual counseling, medication and other activities, male and female patients are taught breathing exercises, meditation techniques and some yoga postures.

For Young, the yoga classes give her a way to escape her traumatic memories, if only for a moment.

"Sometimes in the middle of everything, I take a moment and breathe," she says. "It's a hard thing to do when everything else is so dark around me.

Rape victims are not the only ones who benefit from the relaxation exercises, said Stephen Bono, a psychologist in Baltimore's Trauma Recovery Program. Many veterans need to learn how to calm down so that they do not overreact to stressful situations.

"It helps with coping skills, to take a second and realize that there might be a more appropriate way to deal with a situation," he says, recalling the story of a veteran so annoyed by an ice cream-truck bell that one day he shot it off the truck.

Malcolm Gordon, a psychologist with the Trauma Victimization Program at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, says that there are few studies thus far on the effect yoga may have on trauma victims. But he says that Baltimore is one of many such trauma units to incorporate yoga into its program.

"A lot of people are now working with body manipulation, the moving of extremities in certain positions, with the thought being that trauma is sometimes locked in the body and that moving in certain ways can unlock the trauma," he says.

Victims of post-traumatic stress disorder all suffer from common symptoms, such as nightmares, flashbacks, chronic pain and hyper-arousal, Gordon says, but each person suffers differently, so varied kinds of therapy are used. Most programs, including the one in Baltimore, focus on exposure, reliving the event in varied ways. This may include watching videos of combat or listening to tapes of war sounds until the victim is less sensitive to it.

Other treatments include EMDR -- eye movement desensitization reprocessing -- which uses eye movements to help patients process trauma and remember specific details.

"Sometimes people come in and they are blocked, they can't get past a certain memory," says Shaanti Lawrence, a psychology resident at the Women's Clinic. "Normally when a person goes through something, the brain processes the information and people move on. But we think that sometimes, when the event is so traumatic, the brain can't process it normally and the person keeps reliving and reliving what happened."

EMDR has patients focus on a specific memory and retell it while moving their eyes in certain patterns to affect different areas of the brain. Sometimes, Lawrence says, clients will remember additional details or connect the memory to other related events.

At the Baltimore VA, counselors say they must take into account the kind of trauma that their clients are suffering. When its Trauma Recovery Program opened in 1985, almost all the patients were Vietnam veterans and male, most trying to deal with stress from combat situations.

Now an increasing number of their patients -- all honorably discharged -- are veterans of military action in the Persian Gulf, World War II veterans suddenly dealing with nightmares from 50 years ago, and women -- who now make up 12 percent of the military force.

Although their women patients also suffer from stress disorder, the cause is rarely combat. According to the Veterans Association, research studies conducted in primary care settings indicate that some 68 percent of female veterans report a history of sexual or physical abuse. Almost 60 percent of those experiences occurred during military service.

"It used to be that the women had to [officially] report that they were raped before we could treat them," says Andrea Van Horn, the womens veteran coordinator at the Baltimore VA. "Now there is no requirement, all they have to do is say that the incident occurred and they can get help."

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