Institute helps veterans lower stress back in the real world


Photos courtesy of Warrior Institute Shown are veterans with the Warrior Institute who went on a trip organized by Outward Bound in the Everglades.

Published: Sunday, May 26, 2013 at 7:57 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 26, 2013 at 7:57 p.m.

When ex-Marine Curtis Long served in Fallujah, Iraq, he was on the "bomb squad."

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Photos courtesy of Warrior Institute Shown are veterans with the Warrior Institute who went on a trip organized by Outward Bound in the Everglades.

His job was to disarm the improvised explosive devices, also known as roadside bombs. One day, a bomb blew up, leaving everyone in Long's vehicle alive but temporarily unconscious and indefinitely scarred.

Long, who was 22 at the time, suffered nerve damage that resulted in a facial tic that makes him look like he has Tourette syndrome. And like many veterans, he continues to suffer from the psychological trauma of the experience.

"My wife sent me to the store, and I about lost my mind. There were so many choices, I didn't know what to do," said Long, who lives in Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Today, at 28, Long is a stay-at-home dad to two daughters, ages 7 and 4.

"I don't do too well in the job atmosphere," he said.

But through a process called biofeedback — which is the basis of a soon-to-be Gainesville-based institute — Long is learning how to go out in public more and to be around people in crowded stores without having panic attacks.

Biofeedback, which shows people how their bodies react to stress and teaches them how to lower that stress, is one of two components of the Warrior Institute, a nonprofit that combines biofeedback with outdoor activities that appeal to vets and in July will make its home in a warehouse space in northwest Gainesville.

"There's a huge need in the veterans' community for people with brain injuries, physical issues and problems with community integration," said co-founder Tonia Zyburt, a recreational therapist.

She added that Gainesville has a large number of vets but few community-based programs for them outside the Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The institute offers one-on-one training for vets as well as different types of therapy focused on improving veterans' emotional, psychological, cognitive and physical symptoms. It also offers retreats in the outdoors — with one recent retreat, co-sponsored by Outward Bound, taking veterans and their wives to the Florida Everglades for a week.

Long and his wife participated in that trip.

"A lot of guys with PTSD and and TBI (traumatic brain injury) don't like being around people they don't know, let alone working with people they don't know," Long said, describing himself as a "loner."

"By the end of the trip, everyone was very talkative with each other," Long said.

Each day, the vets and their spouses had a different task, from preparing breakfast to navigating through the waters to setting up the tents at the end of the day. The six-day trip covered 33 miles.

"All you have is a map and a compass — no GPS," Long said. "It's back to the old school way of navigating."

Spouse participation is an important component of the outings, since it's well known that vets' marriages often suffer as a result of PTSD.

"Me and my wife got put in a canoe together," Long said. "Whether or not you have good communication with your spouse, you will by the end of the week."

Long added that his wife's participation was also beneficial because it simulated a more real-world experience, compared with other PTSD therapy groups that create a stress-free scenario, only to afterward place you "back to the wife and kids and stressful environment."

On the outing, the vets do biofeedback training at morning and night. This involves wearing an earpiece that's connected to a netbook that measures heart rate variability and other signs of stress. People can see the variation, and they are taught, mostly through breathing techniques that emphasize using the diaphragm, how to get their body back to healthy physiological levels.

Zyburt added that doing biofeedback in a natural, peaceful setting "teaches them how to keep their physiology in that setting."

"Being able to do it out in the wild is really astonishing," said Long, who had done biofeedback in clinical settings, namely hospitals. "I love the outdoors. It brought two good things together."

Zyburt compares biofeedback to going to the gym to strengthen muscles.

"You're strengthening your central nervous system to get more relaxed," she said, adding that it gives people the tools to recognize how their anxiety or anger levels might change in real-world settings and do something about it. Long now has a biofeedback app on his iPhone to do it on his own.

Dr. Carmen Russoniello is a professor of psychophysiology and director of biofeedback at East Carolina University. "The military really sees this as a mechanism to bring about quite a bit of change in folks that do it," he said.

Russoniello has conducted several studies on biofeedback and is working on one now sponsored by the Department of Defense. Zyburt added that an advantage of biofeedback over other PTSD treatments is that results are quantifiable.

Vets also appear to be more compliant with it, at least compared with taking medications.

"If you think of (vets) more like athletes, they don't want crap in their body," Russoniello said. "They start with that kind of mentality: I'm not taking anything, and now you want me to take mental health drugs?

"When they do this, they're playing a video game, and they're winning and getting more points."

Biofeedback also trumps group therapy because people can visualize their progress as opposed to just airing their trauma, Long added.

Russoniello, who is a Vietnam vet and has been working with biofeedback for two decades, said the therapy ultimately aims to rewire the body after a traumatic experience.

"You've been put in a crazy situation that whacked out your nervous system — that's why you drink so you don't feel any of it. We try to reset it to the way it was before you left."

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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