For veterans and first responders dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, a promising new therapy works by putting them back in the field. It's not the battlefield, but rather a playing field where they can reconnect with the strategy, teamwork and physical exertion of combat through the sport of paintball.
According to the PTSD Foundation of America, one-third of U.S. soldiers returning home from combat will be diagnosed with PTSD. And it's not just soldiers fighting overseas. First responders such as firefighters and paramedics can experience traumatic events on a daily basis. Left untreated, PTSD may lead to depression, anxiety and outbursts of anger and violence. Many PTSD sufferers turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with the stress.
For them, paintball serves as "exposure therapy," which harnesses physical activity as a way for clients to accept and work through past trauma. Not only does it help address traumatic events in clients lives, but it also offers a healthy form of release for these clients, who may be battling addiction to drugs or alcohol.
"As I worked with veterans, especially those within the Special Forces community, it seemed to me that the majority of them were driven by a strong desire to return to their combat squads despite their PTSD symptoms," said Luke Meier, clinical psychologist and therapist at Morningside Recovery in Irvine, where he offers paintball therapy to clients. Prior to that, he spent five years training Navy SEALS and 12 years providing crisis and PTSD therapy to Special Forces within all branches of the U.S. military.
This approach has been adopted by organizations around the country. An Oklahoma City-based nonprofit called Operation Green Hope offers a similar treatment using airsoft guns, which fire small plastic pellets instead of paint. And the London Treatment Center of Florida in West Palm Beach offers paintball therapy as part of its drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.
At Morningside Recovery, Meier has found paintball therapy to be an effective tool for clients who can prove challenging to treat. "Soldiers and first responders can experience stigma and often feel like they'll be shunned by their peers for admitting they have a problem," he said. "A guy saying, 'I'm going to play paintball' is more open about it than if he's going to trauma group."
Of course, there's more to paintball therapy than simply playing the game. The sessions also offer opportunities to stop and deconstruct the emotions or memories that participants may experience while playing. Flashbacks might occur on the field, Meier said. "It forces them to face these emotions. We're triggering them in a safe and controlled environment, then processing them after the fact."
In some cases, Meier even uses paintball therapy as a way to address specific events in a person's life, as in the case of a veteran he worked with who had PTSD stemming from a particularly difficult battle in Iraq. He had the paintball group reenact the scenario, stopping periodically to process it with discussion along the way.
In other cases, simulating combat scenarios can spark a mental breakthrough. One participant, for example, had suffered violent abuse from his father as a child. "When he got on the paintball field he remembered repressed thoughts, and he could finally put a finger on the reasons for his anxiety and panic," Meier said. "Eventually he let go of the pain and forgave his father."
“The goal of exposure therapy is to help solders work through trauma and practice the coping skills they learn on the paintball field in real life,” Meier said. While Morningside has not yet measured results of the Paintball Therapy program with pre- and post-testing of PTSD symptoms or addictive behaviors, testimony from participants suggests the therapy is beneficial.
—Travis Marshall for Morningside Recovery
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