How much time do you spend watching TV every day? If you’re a veteran with PTSD, chances are the answer is ‘a lot’ or ‘too much.’ Lots of veterans with PTSD are finding that getting away from the television, and out into the world of volunteering can be a big help toward feeling better.
By Mary Tendall and Jan Fishler
For war veterans, quiet moments of the day or night are not necessarily a peaceful time. Brain scans show that when a veteran is involved with a physical or mental task, the brain stem and limbic system (fight, flight, freeze or combat-ready brain) are calm. Quiet times with no focused mental or physical activity are quite different. In this case, brain scans reveal that the “combat-ready” parts of the brain are lit up like neon lights.
During the early retirement years, when the body is beginning to wear out, old distractions are not as available as they once were, and many vets struggle to keep busy.
Brain scans reveal that the “combat-ready” parts of the brain are lit up like neon lights.
To avoid triggering the brain into a combat-ready state, it’s important for veterans to find a meaningful focus – one that can provide them with a sense of well being and peace of mind. Although watching reruns of “Hogan’s Heroes,” or numbing out to any number of reality TV shows is an option, a better choice is creating positive experiences in the present that can become special memories to be recalled in the future. Creating such experiences can be challenging for some, but when the issue was explored by a group of Vietnam veterans (who began meeting years ago through a VA program and who now meet weekly on their own at a local coffee shop), they came up with some insightful realizations and solutions.
Through their ongoing group meetings, the participants discovered that although their outward lives were very different, they shared common thoughts and feelings. All the veterans agreed that they wanted peace of mind. They all wanted to feel worthy, and more than anything, they wanted a good night’s sleep.
Helping others can help you, too
Through various discussions, the men eventually realized that the few times they did attain the conditions they were seeking was when they volunteered their time or helped out in some way. It seemed that being of service was a pathway toward balance and well-being, and away from depression and anxiety.
All the veterans agreed that they wanted peace of mind. They all wanted to feel worthy, and more than anything, they wanted a good night’s sleep.
Ralph* got the ball rolling when he told the others about how he helped the elderly couple next door by mowing their small lawn and doing minor repairs. He wouldn’t accept money for his efforts, but he didn’t turn down the baked goods that would mysteriously show up on his doorstep. Ralph’s story inspired members of the group to inquire at the local Veterans’ Service Office to see if there were others in the community who might need help.
It turned out there were not only retired World War II and Korean veterans who needed assistance, but also Vietnam veterans, wives of current combat soldiers, and some young, disabled vets, as well. The group members soon pooled their talents, tools, and trucks, and together they began tackling numerous projects.
After successfully completing several projects, they expressed how good it made them feel to be doing something that “makes a difference.” In addition to having a good time, they were often exhausted enough to get in a couple more hours of sleep. The camaraderie deepened with this shared activity, and one veteran commented, “It reminds me of the good times in Nam without the bullshit.”
Are you up for it?
Volunteer efforts don’t always require physical exertion. Sharing his knowledge was a way Bill could serve other veterans. Over the years, he had become an expert in understanding the VA benefits system – especially the disability claim process.
By sharing his expertise with the new soldiers who were returning home, Bill not only took some of the load off the over-burdened county veteran’s office, but he also helped other veterans through what is often a lengthy and confusing process.
Volunteering got me out of the house, where I spend time doing what I love.
When asked what volunteering and being of service has meant to them, many veterans openly share the benefits they have personally reaped. John, a retired veterinarian who does volunteer work at an animal shelter, and who even made a trip to a small village in Mexico to spay and neuter the dogs and cats, said, “Volunteering got me out of the house, where I spend time doing what I love.”
Lars, a man of few words, became animated as he spoke of the Mexican village he travels to regularly. “So far I’ve helped build two schools.” Showing photos of smiling children and villagers, Lars’ face lit up as he described the elation on the children’s faces whenever he arrived at the schools. His wife said that Lars is a different person now that he has a meaningful focus – his anger has significantly subsided and he is able to sleep better.
Many vets prefer to work alone with minimal social contact. Alan loved gardening, but found he had more plants than he could use. It wasn’t long before his wife found grateful recipients – from individuals to restaurants and churches. As he worked with his plants, Alan went from “just getting through each day, to actually looking forward to future activities.” Today, his shop and greenhouse are filled with catalogs, seeds, seedlings, and well-developed plants ready to be relocated. An industrious man, Alan sold a few of the larger plants to pay for supplies, and donated the rest. Although Alan prefers to work alone, his wife likes to get out and enjoys delivering her husband’s plants to local rest homes and her church.
Carl lives alone and has a wood shop. Because of physical limitations caused by a bad back, he is unable to be the cabinetmaker he once was. At first he worried about what he would do to fill his time, but when a neighbor asked if he could make toys, Carl, who had never made toys before, decided to give it try. Now, two years later, he makes toy trains, cars, and boats, and has someone else sell them at a crafts fairs for a share of the profit. He also donates many toys to homeless children in the area.
The beauty of this arrangement is that there is no deadline, and Carl is able to work whenever he feels like it – a schedule that is perfect for him. In spite of his bad back, Carl is now productive and pleased by the many letters he receives from grateful families who have been the recipients of his toys. Today Carl is just one of many veterans who use their skills to bring joy to others.
Proof that it works
If you’re still not sure if volunteering is for you, consider current research: Several studies have shown that older adults who volunteer regularly tend to be happier as a group than those who don’t volunteer. There is also evidence that older volunteers are not just happier, but also physically healthier than non-volunteers. Better yet, there’s a mounting body of research indicating that those who volunteer or participate in similar activities live longer.
Studies have shown that older adults who volunteer regularly tend to be happier as a group than those who don’t volunteer.
So the next time you’re headed toward your recliner, instead of picking up the remote, volunteer to take the grandkids to a movie, drive to your local vets center and see who might need your help, or go online and check out some of the volunteer ideas that accompany this article – and then make an effort to find one that fits your interests.
And remember the words of basketball’s coaching legend, John Wooden: “You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”
Getting out of the rut
Yes, you can
Think there’s no way out of your rut? Feeling like there’s nothing much to do these days but watch more television?
Think no one wants you?
If that’s the way you feel, get up out of your chair and get busy finding a great volunteer opportunity that’s just right for you. Right there in your own town there’s almost sure to be some person or some organization that needs you, and that can put your skills to work. You’ll help other people, and you’ll also help yourself. It’s just about a sure thing.
What will you get out of it?
More than you ever imagined. Meet new friends. Find a new purpose for your life. Hospitals always have interesting volunteer jobs where you can really help with no special skills. Or maybe some kids need a coach for their basketball team. The possibilities are just about endless. Yes, you probably won’t get paid in cash, but what you will get is even better than money. Give it a try. You have nothing to lose but another night in front of the TV.
*Names and some situations in this article have been changed. Some photos may include models who have no real-life relationship to the story or any PTSD issues.
Mary Tendall, MA LMFT, has worked for over 20 years with combat veterans and their families, as a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in combat-related PTSD. She has consulted for the Gulf War Resource Center, National Public Radio, and Newsweek. She continues to work with combat veterans and their families, and is affiliated with several national non-profits whose goal is to help veterans, such as VietNow, Soldier’s Heart, Train Down, and America’s Heroes First. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jan Fishler is an author, writing coach, and creator/presenter of a series of writing workshops. Her memoir, Searching for Jane, Finding Myself, is available on Amazon. You can learn more about her at janfishler.com. She is married to a Vietnam veteran.