The Link Between PTSD, Support, and Exercise in Veterans – Triathlon

Kevin*, a 37-year-old former US Army officer, believes that triathlon training saved his life not once, but twice. “I don’t remember thinking, ‘Drinking tonight will help me sleep,’ but I was doing it every night anyway,” he said, recalling the months when he first started experiencing PTSD symptoms. He explained that drinking culture was just a part of life in the military, and whiskey became his drug of choice for insomnia and nightmares. “If I hadn’t been swimming, cycling and running, I could be very sick right now – if I were alive.”

Triathlon came to save him a second time as he transitioned from military service to civilian life while battling his mental health due to past trauma. He’s far away from relationships and not close to his family, but training feels like something to stick to. “If I had this, I might be able to move on,” he said on a Zoom call, pointing to the triathlon bike hanging on the wall behind him. He said he had good days and bad days, but never felt healed. When asked what would happen if he had to stop training, he could only shake his head.

The experience of trauma and PTSD is a pressing health concern for the entire U.S. population, especially veterans, with recent estimates of the prevalence of PTSD as high as 20 percent.A Meta-Analysis of Physical Health Issues Associated with PTSD Published in Journal of Anxiety Disorders Note the wide range of symptoms and complications that affect every part of the body and mind as the brain struggles to adapt to stress and repeated memories of stress.

The military has psychotherapy services to support service members, but some veterinarians have found that daily exercise is one of the quickest and most effective ways to relieve PTSD symptoms like depression, anxiety and insomnia. A recent literature review summarizing findings on the benefits of exercise for PTSD found that exercise has multiple benefits, including enhanced cognitive function, reduced responses to sensory stimuli, improved social interaction, and reduced systemic inflammation. Obviously, training helps, but is it enough?

Warrior Mentality: Strength and Failure

Psychotherapist and U.S. Army veteran Arielle Thibodeaux admits that there are aspects of triathlon training that military members feel particularly comfortable with, such as adherence to schedules, goal orientation, and physical exertion. “People are really drawn to these types of things because it’s a very similar experience. It might be a good thing for them to imitate that. However, she also explained that veterans tend to turn their focus on goals into narrow vision and rigidity. Moderation is put on hold as veterinarians go into “mission mode” and convince themselves that they have to reach their goals no matter what. This mentality is taught from day one in boot camp and can even influence behavior in civilian life. “Part of the Army ethos is ‘never accept failure, never give up,'” she explained, citing With a dog tag emblazoned with “Warrior Spirit,” which she received during her first week of training. “It’s hard to forget that. “

Marine Corps Veteran Daphne* was diagnosed with PTSD at the end of her deployment and began running a daily half-marathon to manage her growing anxiety. For a while, she believed she had found a cure because her post-run excitement made her feel optimistic and more in control. She put increasing pressure on herself to keep exercising, often running longer as symptoms such as anxiety, depression and insomnia increased. “I’m so excited to be back in the U.S. so I can increase swimming and cycling. I was determined to do a triathlon that summer because I wanted to turn bad things into good things.” Daphne had to stop training after a hip injury, and things went downhill afterward. Going downhill soon. Unable to work out or complete her triathlon goals, she broke down. “Last year, I ended up having suicidal thoughts and ended up in the hospital for a week. That was the lowest moment of my life. “

This situation may be more common than we think.Athlete Veteran People like Daphne are more likely to experience potential physical injuries from service wear and tear that could ultimately limit or completely inhibit their ability to train. Recent literature review military medicine It was shown that soldiers are often under extreme physical and mental stress during training operations, so they may have a harder time noticing injuries because they are trained to ignore pain and other somatosensory sensations until the operation is complete. worse, Thibodeaux said service members tend to be very hard on themselves when they are physically injured.

“It’s hard for them to say, ‘I have a knee injury, but it’s not me as a person and it doesn’t mean anything to me.’ They tend to say, ‘I’m heartbroken. I’m weak because I can’t do this anymore.’ .” They see it as a personal failure. “

Not a cure, but part of the healing puzzle

Arielle Thibodeaux advocates the use of a diverse treatment program rather than relying solely on management training, “it’s helpful to have a lot in your life to fill the cup and guide you through the recovery process.” She hopes psychotherapy is part of the program some, but point out that it may not be for everyone. Other options can be meditation and mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), having a good support network of friends and family, connecting with veterans’ organizations, and seeking substance abuse support when necessary. Even a basic understanding of overall health principles such as good nutrition, hydration, and sleep hygiene can go a long way toward managing symptoms. In this way, people never lose resources, are never forced to continue training when they are unfit, and never think that their sport is their way of survival.

New mission: personal well-being

For veterans who enjoy endurance sports, Thibodeaux believes they can use task-based thought processes for training to protect their mental health. “When the military is on a mission, we take a different course of action and try to reduce risk. Veterans are not used to thinking about personal matters this way, but when they leave the military, their new mission is themselves.” Using this With strategies, athletes can manage their expectations and even prepare for the highs and lows of training, DNF, or other adverse outcomes. Instead of crashing, using substances, or engaging in self-harm, athletes can be prepared to use one of their alternative coping tools.

It is important to remember that one cannot tell how well a person is managing mental illness just by looking at them. Just because someone “looks” like a healthy athlete or strong soldier doesn’t mean they don’t have an inner struggle. Whether or not the person is able to participate in triathlon training, they may still experience symptoms of weakness, Thibodeaux said. She recommends watching for red flags such as irritability, nightmares, lack of sleep, increased alcohol intake and suicidal ideation. When these behaviors spread, it may be time to seek help. In their new mission of happiness, it may be the bravest thing a veteran can do.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

Recommended Mental Health Resources for Veterans

related: Mental Health Resources for Triathletes

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