Kevin*, a 37-year-old former US Army officer, credits training for triathlons with saving his life not once, but twice. “I don’t remember thinking to myself, ‘Drinking is going to help me fall asleep tonight,’ but I was doing it every night anyway,” he said, thinking back to the months he had. started to feel the first symptoms of PTSD. He explained that drinking culture was part of life in the military and that whiskey had become the go-to remedy for his insomnia and nightmares. “If I hadn’t discovered swimming, cycling and running, I would probably be pretty sick right now, if I were still alive.”
Triathlon came to his rescue a second time as he transitioned from military service to civilian life, while struggling with his mental health following past trauma. He’s stayed away from relationships and isn’t close to his family, but the workout looks like something to hold on to. “Maybe I can go on if I have that,” he said on a Zoom call, pointing to the triathlon bike hanging on a wall behind him. He has good days and bad days, he says, but never feels cured. 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 issue for all Americans, but especially among veterans, where recent estimates the prevalence of PTSD reaches 20%. A meta-analysis physical health problems associated with PTSD published in the Anxiety Disorders Diary notes that the symptoms and complications are wide ranging, affecting every part of the body and mind as the brain struggles to adapt to stress and the repeated memories of that stress.
The Army has established psychotherapeutic treatment services to support service members, but some vets have found that daily exercise is one of the quickest and most effective ways to relieve PTSD symptoms. such as depression, anxiety and insomnia. A recent literature review which summarized the results of research studies on the benefits of exercise for PTSD found that exercise had multiple benefits, including improved cognitive function, reduced responsiveness to sensory stimuli, improved socialization and systemic inflammation scaled down. It is clear that training helps, but is it enough?
The warrior state of mind: a strength and a fall
Arielle Thibodeaux, a psychotherapist and U.S. Army veteran, agrees that certain aspects of triathlon training are especially comfortable for military service members, such as sticking to a schedule, goal orientation, and physical exertion. “People are really drawn to this stuff because it’s such a similar experience. It may be good for them to imitate that. However, she also explains that vets tend to turn that focus on one goal into tunnel vision and rigidity. Moderation goes by the wayside as the vets go into “mission mode” and convince themselves that they must achieve the goal, no matter what. This mindset is taught from day one of boot camp and can influence behavior even in civilian life. “Part of the ethos of the military is ‘never accept defeat and never give up,'” she says, holding up a ‘Warrior Ethos’ dog tag she has. received during his first week of training. “It’s pretty hard to forget that.”
Daphne*, a Marine Corps veteran, was diagnosed with PTSD at the end of her deployment and started running half marathons every day to control growing anxiety. For a while, she believed she had found a cure because her post-race high made her feel upbeat and more in control. She put more and more pressure on herself to continue training, often extending runs as symptoms like anxiety, depression and insomnia increased. “I was so excited to return to the States that I was able to add swimming and cycling. I was determined to do a triathlon that summer because I wanted to turn bad into good. Daphne had to stop training when she injured her hip and things went downhill quickly after that. Unable to train or pursue her triathlon goals, she collapsed. “Last year I ended up having suicidal thoughts and ended up being hospitalized for a week. It was the lowest moment of my life.”
This situation may be more common than you think. Athletes-veterans like Daphne are more likely to have underlying physical injuries from wear and tear on duty that can eventually limit or completely inhibit their ability to train. A recent literature review in military medicine indicates that soldiers are regularly subjected to extreme physical and mental stress during training operations, so it may be harder for them to notice when they are injured because they have been trained to ignore pain and other somatic sensations until the end of the operation. Worse, Thibodeaux says soldiers tend to be pretty hard on themselves when they suffer physical injuries.
“They find it hard to say, ‘I have this knee injury, but it’s not who I am as a person and it doesn’t mean anything to me. They tend to say, ‘I’m broken. I’m weak because I can’t do this thing anymore.” They see it as a personal failure.
Not a cure, but a piece of the treatment puzzle
Arielle Thibodeaux advocates using a diverse treatment plan that doesn’t rely solely on coping training: “Having multiple things in your life to fill the cup and guide you through the healing process is helpful . She hopes psychotherapy is part of the plan, but notes that it may not be for everyone. Other options may be meditation and mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), having a good support network of friends and family, connecting to veterans organizations, and seeking support in drug addiction if necessary. Even having a basic understanding of general health principles like proper nutrition, hydration, and sleep hygiene can go a long way in managing symptoms. This way, the person is never left destitute, never forced to keep training when it’s unhealthy, and never left thinking that their sport is their survival.
The New Mission: Personal Wellness
For veterans who enjoy endurance sports, Thibodeaux believes they can use their mission-based thought process to approach training in a way that will protect their sanity. “When there is a mission in the army, we work on different courses of action and try to mitigate the risks. Veterans aren’t used to thinking that way about personal things, but when they get out of the military, their new mission is themselves. Using this strategy, athletes can manage their expectations, even prepare for the ups and downs of training, a DNF, or other adverse outcomes. Instead of collapsing, using substances, or engaging in self-harming behaviors, the athlete can prepare to use one of their alternative coping tools.
It is important to remember that there is no way to tell how well someone is coping with mental illness just by looking at them. Just because a person “looks like” a healthy athlete or a strong soldier doesn’t mean they don’t suffer inside. Thibodeaux says that whether or not the person is able to participate in triathlon training, they may still experience debilitating symptoms. She suggests paying attention to red flags such as irritability, nightmares, lack of sleep, increased alcohol consumption and suicidal ideation. When these behaviors set in, it may be time to seek help. In their new welfare mission, this may be the bravest thing a veteran can do.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
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