VA researcher Autumn Gallegos (L) and students Brenda Voorhees (C) and Kelly Lannon practice their Warrior 2 pose during a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is preparing to launch a study this year to determine if a practice called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction can help relieve symptoms of posttraumatic stress in women Veterans suffering from military sexual trauma (MST).
About one in five women in the military will report experiencing sexual trauma while serving their country.
“That’s about 20 percent of women Veterans, ” said Dr. Autumn Gallegos, a researcher with VA’s Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention in Canandaigua, NY. “Exposure to MST is a significant public health concern and is associated with both mental and physical health burdens, including risk of suicide.”
Gallegos said the negative mental health consequences of military sexual trauma are extensive, and include posttraumatic stress and other anxiety disorders, depression and substance abuse.
Returning to the Scene of the Crime
“A traumatic event, such a sexual assault, has the potential to detach you from your own body, ”Gallegos explained. “After all, your body itself was the crime scene. So, one of our major goals is to help you learn how to re-connect with your body, to have your body once again become a resource for you, a source of comfort and peace.”
Women selected for the study will participate in two-hour group sessions, once each week, where they will engage in four mindfulness practices: sitting mediation, walking meditation, mindful movement (similar to yoga poses) and a body scan.
“During a body scan, you’re simply paying very close attention to sensations in different regions of your body, ” Gallegos said. “Through meditations that focus on body awareness, participants gradually begin to reconnect to their bodies, to regard their bodies as a source of strength.”
Promoted to Captain
“All these practices are designed to foster a calm, non-judgmental awareness of your sensations and feelings, ” she observed. “We call it Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. The idea is to be present in the moment, to be fully aware and alive. And if you can do that, you can choose how you’re going to respond to unpleasant events or memories. You become the captain of your own ship.”
“For women who have been physically and sexually victimized, ”she continued, “the practice of reappraising thoughts and physiological sensations with mindful awareness may improve their ability to successfully regulate their emotions, thereby mitigating trauma symptoms. We want to see if this approach to stress reduction is effective for women Veterans who’ve experienced military sexual trauma.”
The Blame Game
Gallegos said that following a sexual assault, victims tend to engage in a lot of self-blame. Along with that, the victim tends to re-experience the event repeatedly, like a broken record playing in her head.