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News > Treatment for PTSD can also benefit members with general stress, anxiety
Treatment for PTSD can also benefit members with general stress, anxiety

Posted 6/25/2010   Updated 6/25/2010 Email story   Print story


by Chelsea Gitzen
316th Wing Public Affairs

6/25/2010 - JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- Balancing any number of the daily responsibilities that servicemembers may have can have a six-letter affect on them: stress.

Luckily, new technological and psychological advancements in the treatment of anxiety and other symptoms of stress can help equip members with anxiety-relieving techniques.

Biofeedback, one of these advancements, utilizes technology to show patients suffering from stress and anxiety, the physiological symptoms of stress, how to control those reactions and how to prevent them or halt them in the future.

"We're going to hook you up to Biofeedback today," said Dr. Beth Davis, 79th Medical Wing deployment behavioral health psychologist, to a patient. "Biofeedback can help treat a variety of conditions including anxiety, PTSD, muscle tension, chronic pain, Fibromyalgia, panic disorders, etc."

The hour-long Biofeedback sessions that patients routinely participate in are meant to relieve stress and anxiety as well as to teach patients how their body reacts to stressors and what they can do to combat them. This is done in part through attaching sensors to patients in order to allow the Biofeedback machine to monitor vitals such as a patient's breathing or heart rate.

"The goal of the biofeedback sensors is to get a 'snap shot' into the workings of the patient's autonomic nervous system which contributes to the 'fight or flight,' response," Dr. Davis said. "This response gears a person up for an intense response like immediate fleeing of a location like if they were to see a car heading for them or some other tense situation. The autonomic nervous system prepares a person for that response."

Biofeedback teaches patients through programs generated on a machine involving tones and images that make the patient's physiological responses easy to understand. Through these visual programs, the patient is instructed to manage their breathing, heart rate or body's surface temperature.

"The feedback a patient receives from auditory and visual displays helps them to understand their physiological response to stress and anxiety," Dr. Davis said. "The goal of the biofeedback program is to increase a patient's awareness of what is happening with their body's physiology and then in turn increase that patient's ability to bring their anxiety under greater voluntary control as well as continue the techniques used to control anxiety outside of biofeedback sessions."

These techniques that patients learn may serve them well in future deployments and allow them to maintain their bearing under the typical stress of that working environment.

"The Biofeedback program definitely educated me on how to effectively deal with day to day stressors," said Tech. Sgt. Angel Williams, 779th Medical Group superintendent's executive administrator and Biofeedback patient. "While being subjected to various stressful exercises, I learned how to perform various breathing and relaxing techniques. It was interesting to see my body's natural reactions and see the exercises work their magic on the screen. In addition, Dr. Davis sent me an email with some of the breathing exercises that I can utilize at anytime. In a deployed environment, I am sure that these techniques would be helpful while encountering physical and emotional stressors."

Each of the sensors placed on the patient at the start of the session calculates an area that is typically affected by stress through symptoms like sweating, rapid breathing or tensing muscles.

"Biofeedback uses about five different sensors - a respiration belt to measure breathing, a finger clip sensor to measure heart rate, a thermometer taped to a finger to measure surface temperature, sensors on a palm to measure skin conductants because when people become more anxious, they perspire, and sensors measuring muscle tension," Dr. Davis said.

Stress also creates other physiological symptoms which can lead to additional problems down the road.

"Some people experience stress in the form of migraine headaches or they develop back pain, muscle spasms, or digestive problems because all of those systems are interlinked together," Dr. Davis said.

All of these symptoms can be triggered by daily stressers that most people may take for granted.

"Things like general stress, relationship conflicts, work stressers, traffic, deadlines, financial stress - all of those conflicts activate a 'fight or flight' response on a low level for people who have chronic stress," Dr. Davis said.

This 'fight or flight' response is part of a base instinct most animals have through millions of years of evolution to enable them to survive in a serious conflict.

"If a person were walking through the woods and encountered a bear, instantaneously their body starts to react," Dr. Davis said. "Their thoughts speed up, their pupils dilate and take in more light, their blood flow is diverted away from their finger tips and toes and sent to their core to keep a steady supply to their brain, heart, lungs, other vital organs and muscle groups, their digestion slows, and their immune system slows. In general, their body focuses more energy on short-term survival rather than long-term."

In addition to all of the more common causes and reactions to stress, biofeedback can also help treat PTSD in members returning from combat environments.

"After someone returns from a deployment, is diagnosed with PTSD and has chronic anxiety, biofeedback is one tool in addition to many other tools that psychologists use such as cognitive behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, virtual reality therapy - to reduce anxiety," Dr. Davis said.

PTSD isn't a condition that can be overcome easily, but there are plenty of programs and groups in place through the military that make recovery possible. Members are always encouraged to contact their health care provider if they or someone they know is showing signs of suffering PTSD.

"There's a certain level of stigma associated with any mental health diagnosis," Dr. Davis said. "But we know now that having PTSD doesn't imply a shortcoming in character or weakness of some sort, but the disorder can greatly affect a person's physiology."

Part of PTSD is a member's inability to return to their regular stress levels. PTSD can be treated and is a condition that - through treatment and support - may be alleviated. Everyone who is equipped with a 'fight or flight' reaction also shares the capability to return to a normal state.

"Once that threat of being in a combat zone is over, everyone has a complimentary system called the parasympathetic nervous system that brings everything back to the baseline," Dr. Davis said.

If you or anyone you know is showing signs of PTSD or stress such as intrusive and upsetting memories, flashbacks, nightmares of past events; intense physiological reactions to reminders of a past event such as a pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension or sweating; avoiding activities, places, thoughts or feelings; loss of interest in activities and life in general or other symptoms, contact your supervisor or health care provider immediately.

For more information about PTSD and a complete list of symptoms, visit To participate in the biofeedback program, consult your health care provider.

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