PTSD Treatment: Symptoms or Souls?

PTSD Treatment: Symptoms or Souls?

After the showing of “American Sniper,” the audience around me at our local theater — perhaps like yours — remained silent. It lasted long minutes before people quietly rose and shuffled out.

I think we were sharing heartbreak.

We were sharing an urgency for solutions to combat trauma called post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). As many dedicated care-givers search for solutions, one fact is emerging: one method of treatment does not fit everyone.

“Individuality,” in fact, has become a guiding principle of new medical efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) to treat PTSD. Armed with a federal grant, they're trying to find “alternative” therapies that can complement and individualize conventional (drug-based) treatment.

While the need for cure is growing, conventional drug treatments aren't working over the long haul. In many cases, drug dependencies are created instead — without any real cure in sight.

Meeting an individual patient’s needs makes perfect sense. But so far, even some complementary medicine advocates doubt if a truly individualized treatment can result from clinical laboratory research. The laboratory approach mostly addresses physical symptoms, not the patient's unique individuality and whole life experience.

Interestingly, there are already examples of effective treatment in real-life settings — harbingers of individualization's deeper potential. The War Resilience Center at Fort Bliss, Texas, a U.S. Army PTSD care unit, exposes a patient to a variety of alternative health therapies such as acupuncture and Reike, and tailors treatment to individual response. Social workers such as Karen Soltes, co-founder of Warriors at Ease, find meditation practices to be effective because they adapt well to individual life needs.

Perhaps the heart of what's at play is illustrated by caregivers right on the battlefield, such as chaplains, ministering to each with a focus on a key aspect of their individuality — the spiritual.

Take, for example, Col. (Ret) Janet Horton, a Christian Science U.S. Army Chaplain. Over her 28-year career, she served in various deployments overseas and at the Pentagon (including the day and aftermath of 9/11). She tells of her experience with PTSD-diagnosed soldiers in an online broadcast at

“We saw some of the folks in Bosnia. Medical teams came in and said the troops had a 'PTSD experience' and needed stress debrief. But the troops later said they found it unproductive,” Horton explained. The assumption that PTSD was identified by the same symptoms for every soldier was often incorrect.

Horton also says she found it unproductive to try to work directly with symptoms at all. The most important thing, she said, “… is to help them look inside themselves and consider what their spiritual identity is, and to see that that includes a natural resiliency. They have strength in that identity that can't be touched,” because it comes from a divine source. It's “... a strength that is beyond just a brave front of saying 'OK, I've got lots of strength and endurance.'” Horton added that this approach tended to lead toward actual healing, rather than just coping with the symptoms.

Is it a leap to look beyond physical symptoms into an untouched spiritual identity? To bypass laboratory testing for a direct focus on the individual's divine essence?

Understandably, yes. But leaving conventions behind is a leap in any field of endeavor and is often driven by necessity. These days, necessity is pushing the VA and the NCCIH to search beyond convention. Their deepening, real-life focus on individuality has the potential to make this “leap” shorter and to lead to practical, new possibilities for our veterans.

The author, a health writer who lives in Arlington, recently was appointed to serve as the media and legislative liaison for Christian Science in Virginia.