How can boxing help veterans with PTSD?
Boxing can provide huge benefits to veterans with PTSD, supporting them and their therapy in a safe, controlled environment.
What exactly is PTSD?
Think about when you experience a stressful event. As your nervous system reacts with a fight, flight or freeze response, your heart will beat much faster, your blood pressure rises quickly and your muscles tighten. All of these automatic changes prime your body for a rapid reaction, helping you defend against danger (or avoid it). Importantly, once the stressful event has ended, your nervous system instantly calms your body down, reducing blood pressure and heart rate levels back to normal.
But for people with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), this final step doesn’t happen. There’s no instant calm down after the event. Instead, the fight, flight or freeze response continues - even after the danger in a stressful situation has ended. Due to this stress overload, the nervous system stays ‘stuck’, stopping your system from recovering, and leading to the situation often being relived with nightmares and flashbacks. This is because of the part of the brain called the Amygdala - responsible for processing short term memories to long term memories.
PTSD means that a traumatic memory becomes stuck in the short term memory. For someone with PTSD, whenever they experience a ‘trigger’, their brain will take them back to the traumatic situation, tiggering the fight, flight or freeze response in the body and producing a massive corresponding amount of adrenaline. Triggers can include certain smells, sounds or events.
PTSD is often experienced by veterans
PTSD is often experienced by veterans, due to traumatic experiences while serving in the armed forces. Triggers in everyday life can start the fight, flight or freeze response, leading veterans to experience constantly frightening and exhausting events. Symptoms of PTSD in veterans can include constantly putting themselves in danger, hypervigilance, defensiveness, agitation and being extremely quick to anger.
To deal with these symptoms and in an effort to block out the triggers and painful episodes, veterans in particular often react to PTSD with disorders such as depression and anxiety; leading them to be disinterested in work and family or social life. In the most tragic cases, taking their own lives may seem like the only option. Many veterans are not aware that they have PTSD, making it even harder to access support.
Funding crisis for mental health support for veterans
People with PTSD need support from their friends and family, even if they feel they don’t. But especially for veterans with PTSD, specialised and targeted support and treatment is needed, and this is often incredibly difficult to access. Budget cuts to mental health support for veterans mean that there’s often a significant wait to access traditional treatment for veteran PTSD at facilities such as Audley Court.
In response to this funding crisis, many groups are seeking to create their own mental health support groups and programmes for veterans, especially using sport as a powerful tool. Boxing in particular offers real benefits; specifically due to the specialised approach needed.
Boxing for veterans: treating PTSD differently
So why does boxing offer huge potential in supporting veterans with PTSD? It’s a common misconception that a sport involving hitting people isn’t a good fit for people experiencing symptoms such as aggression or anger. But it’s actually the opposite – and it’s all due to changing brain chemistry and supporting recovery. Veterans in particular experiencing PTSD are used to producing massive amounts of adrenaline, and the body quickly gets used to this. As a result, PTSD in veterans needs to be treated differently, and boxing facilitates this different approach, often in combination with other treatment.
When triggers occur in people suffering from PTSD, the brain instantly takes them back to that negative fight or flight response. Boxing helps give this same adrenaline rush (often really important for veterans used to this), but in a controlled, safe environment – helping them to function outside of the triggering and traumatic thoughts.
Boxing can help support veterans with PTSD by:
- Learning to manage anger. Boxing, as well as the supportive atmosphere of a boxing club can support veterans to manage their anger better. Hitting a punch bag allows negative emotions such as aggression and tension to expressed in a healthy way leading to a clearer, calmer mindset and better mental health.
- Improving confidence. This can be important in overcoming symptoms of depression associated with PTSD.
- Using the power of adrenaline. The adrenaline fuelled environment of a boxing session can be really helpful in specifically treating veteran PTSD. It gives access to adrenaline in a safe, supportive and controlled environment.
- Teaching using logic instead of emotion. Boxing teaches the value of using logic to think about, and overcome issues, as well as the problems of reacting solely on emotion in a situation.
- Support. A supportive, often group environment can be really important while veterans are receiving therapy for their PTSD, and for support for better mental health generally.
‘I can’t cope in day to day life without boxing’Stu Cook, Bright Star Counterpunch Coach and PTSD Veteran
How to coach a veteran in boxing with PTSD
It’s important that each veteran has an individual care plan when working with, or coaching a veteran with PTSD through boxing. This identifies any specific triggers, helping the coach and club to understand and build up active support.
Bright Star’s Counterpunch mental health support sessions, for example, use a model of Accept, Assess and Overcome (similar to CBT therapy) to structure sessions using a combination of boxing and talking support. A group environment can be especially supportive, particularly when the going through therapy.