Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Finding Help Through CrossFit

The statistics on veteran suicide and PTSD are staggering:
-22 veterans kill themselves every day.
-Almost 25 percent of all suicides in the United States are committed by veterans.
-Female veterans are more likely to attempt suicide; male veterans are more likely to succeed.
-There are about 2.7 million American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; 20% of these veterans have PTSD     and/or Depression
-50% of those with PTSD do not seek treatment
-Of those that do seek treatment, only half of them get “minimally adequate” treatment.
-More active duty personnel died by their own hand than in combat in 2012.

So what is happening in the brain with PTSD? “When placed in a prolonged state of stress, the amygdala (responsible for fight or flight responses) enlarges by commandeering free neurons around its borders. The result is a state of heightened readiness – called “alarm” by neuroscientists – that keeps the body at full alert. When stress is removed, the amygdala should downsize to its normal state…But when the stress isn’t removed, the hippocampus – responsible for memory retrieval and distinguishing between new information and memory – shrinks. The brain loses its ability to provide context for new information; memories can appear to be happening in the present. To make matters worse, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex – which regulates response to fear – also shrinks with prolonged stress, and the brain loses its ability to determine appropriate levels of response…It’s a downward spiral: the brain is primed to perceive threats, memories are confused with the present, and the response to stress is exaggerated. The amygdala keeps growing while the hippocampus shrinks and even mild stressors are amplified.” (Cooper, CrossFit Journal)

While there are many forms of treatment available for PTSD, Ryan Saunders, who lives with PTSD, says that the one that keeps him going each day is CrossFit. “It provides a positive and productive means to deal with the unsettling effects of combat. For me, I’ve found the therapeutic value of CrossFit lies in its most basic definition: constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. The constant variation has helped me deal with some of the lingering effects of combat. In a war waged against a faceless enemy, danger lurks in the shadows and not on the open battle field. The fight often feels one sided; sniper fire, IEDs, and mortar attacks often come from unseen enemies. Still haunting me are the feelings of anticipation and the confusion of an unknown threat. As those memories and emotions surface, I find peace in the fact that CrossFit provides me with the opportunity to step into my garage and confront a specific challenge – to prove myself against it by putting my physical and mental strength to the test. The constant variation assures that I am testing myself fully. In a way, it drags the enemy from the shadows and lets me face it head on.”

Several studies have looked at the effect of a regular exercise program on PTSD symptoms. One study found that those who took part in an aerobic exercise program for 40 minutes, three times per week, experienced a reduction in PTSD symptoms, anxiety, and depression. Another study showed increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in PTSD victims post exercise. BDNF helps with the production of new neurons and synapses, a critical process for replacing cyclical responses to fear. The consensus of many studies: physical activity enhances well-being in veterans by reducing symptoms and improving coping strategies. Symptom reduction in these studies seems to occur through a renewed sense of determination and hope, increased quality of life, and the cultivation of positive self-identity. Researchers explain that participating in sports and physical activities helps combat veterans gain or regain a sense of achievement.
While research is important, hearing it from real people is even more so. David Lochelt, a paratrooper, was trained and served in Vietnam with E Company Recon, 4th Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. He has suffered from PTSD since being honorably discharged from the army in 1970. Here is what he has to say about the impact CrossFit has made on his life: “The moment I walk through the door, all I think about is CrossFit because I’m getting instructions about the workout of the day. I never look to see what it is before I go. I just show up and do whatever I can with that workout. And in that hour or even a little more sometimes, my mind is, like, pushed. It’s absolutely amazing. I think I’m getting endorphins in a different way. I think, scientifically that’s what is happening to me…It gives me something positive to focus on and gives me a break from all the things bouncing around in my head.” In other words, Lochelt feels a full hour of engaged coaching helps him break the stress-response cycle of PTSD.

Cogen Nelson is a 29-year old Marine who served in two deployments and now lives with Post-traumatic stress disorder. He explains PTSD like this “You have this feeling of guilt. You have this feeling of ‘Can I live with some of the decisions I’ve made?’ Just that burden of the stuff you saw, the stuff you’ve been through…You can’t sleep. You’re having horrible nightmares…You don’t do anything. You don’t want to do anything.”

Aside from the mental scars, Nelson was left with physical problems as well. When a vehicle he was in was struck by an IED, Nelson endured fractured vertebrae and a broken wrist. Today, he is left with two cysts on his brain, issues with balance and coordination, and short-and-long-term memory loss. Nelson has found help through CrossFit. He says “For me, it’s worked better than any medication that the doctors have put me on. I can say, without a doubt, CrossFit saved my life…(in the gym) the typical scene of a therapist’s office is replaced with an assortment of steel and iron strewn in front of a white board.”

Lochelt adds that he doesn’t need to be convinced by research: “I’m not going to mess with it. I just know it works. It’s not a cure, but it’s amazing what it does for me…They (the VA) put lots of people on antidepressants, but I’m going to CrossFit. That’s what I say. Don’t try to do this alone.”



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