Campus program helps reintegrate student veterans to civilian life
By Jacob Baynham
By the time Casey Christensen arrived at UM in 2013, he was far from a typical student. After 11 years in the Marine Corps, including two tours in Iraq, he was anxious in crowds, prone to anger and too nervous to sit in a public space. If he saw trash in the road when he was driving, he swerved. The stress and trauma of his service had made him hypervigilant. In Iraq, that mindset kept him safe. Back home, it kept him from a normal college life.
The enrollment process had been grueling — all those applications and deadlines. He was the first in his family to go to college. But now that he was finally here, it was hard to focus on his studies when so much else clouded his mind. A campus that was tranquil to others felt like a battlefield to him. That’s when a fellow student veteran convinced him to attend a new “mindful resilience” program that trained veterans in meditation, yoga and breathing.
Christensen had never struck a yoga pose in his life. He worried about what other veterans would think of him. But he soon found a sense of camaraderie in the group, and he was surprised to find the exercises familiar. As a Marine, he was used to breathing in cadence during long runs, and he was trained to focus on his breathing at the shooting range. Yoga felt like physical therapy. When he started applying these techniques to his civilian life, he grew less anxious and became a better student.
Three years later, Christensen is training to be a yoga instructor. He started teaching classes to veterans this spring. He still doesn’t look the part. He’s 36, with a faded olive baseball cap and a smoker’s gravelly voice. But he believes in the power of the practice, and his own story is evidence that it works.
“Veterans can be a pretty close-minded group,” he says. “Mindfulness and meditation are four-letter words to some of these guys. We need to break that language barrier. A symptom of PTSD is disassociation — the thousand-yard stare. Now we can meditate instead of disassociate.”
UM health and human performance Professor Laura Dybdal used her health psychology background to create the Veteran Mindful Resilience Program in 2013 when she recognized the unique challenges veterans faced on campus. Staying afloat in college is hard enough when you’re not grappling with chronic pain, depression, sleeplessness and post-traumatic stress, as many veterans are. She conducted a needs assessment of student veterans and determined they could benefit from mindfulness techniques.
“We’re trying to foster resilient students — students who can bounce back when they’re experiencing anything from test anxiety to severe depression,” Dybdal says.
Mindfulness doesn’t replace therapy, Dybdal stresses, but it gives student veterans additional tools to reintegrate into civilian life. About 16 to 20 veterans participate in the Mindful Resilience Program each semester, and more than 70 veterans have participated in the program since its launch. Three drop-in classes are offered each week that are taught by instructors from Missoula’s Red Willow Learning Center, which partners with Dybdal to offer the program. Workshops also are offered during the academic year that target specific health issues and facilitate social support among student veterans.
She says the participants report improvement on a range of issues. They’re sleeping better, they’re less anxious, and they’re less depressed. They’re also better students. “Staying in school is a huge piece,” Dybdal says. “The student veterans who have participated are staying in school.” One student veteran, who suffers from an autoimmune disease, said the classes help alleviate his chronic pain.
Dybdal says the physiological explanation for why mindfulness helps the body is a relatively new research area. Neuroscientists are still studying the neural mechanisms that explain why brain matter density increases with meditation. However it happens, mindfulness exercises have been shown to create new pathways in the brain, which are healing for someone who has experienced stress and trauma, Dybdal says.
Just like jogging can improve your mental state, your mental state affects your body, too.
“Things like stress and trauma aren’t just in the mind, they’re in the body,” Dybdal says. “If you improve the body, you’ll improve the mind. And if you improve the mind, you’ll improve the body.”
The real-life manifestation of this field of research is visible in UM’s Mind-Body Lab — a small area in McGill Hall, where the mindful resilience classes take place. It’s an intimate space with a whiteboard, a couch and a research office in the back. Colorful yoga mats are rolled and stacked on the floor beneath shelves of woven rugs, and a stand near the door holds back issues of Mindful magazine. An electric kettle sits on a counter beside boxes of tea. The setting is tranquil and intentionally cultivated to be inviting to student veterans, a group that often uses isolation and avoidance as coping mechanisms.
“Anyone can come to the classes at any time,” Dybdal says. “It has to be flexible.”
When Shawn Grove came to campus in December 2013 to direct UM’s Veterans Education and Transition Services Office, he quickly recognized the value of Dybdal’s program. “She really has a heart for veterans,” he says. “It’s really to the benefit of the University that she has that passion.”
Grove attended some of the yoga classes himself, and whenever he meets with the 700 or so veterans on campus, he encourages them to disregard the stereotypes and try it out. “We’re trying to get rid of that stigma of yoga being frou-frou or not manly enough,” he says. “You’re not going to be a weaker person if you’re doing meditation or yoga.”
And unlike other coping mechanisms, Grove says, mindfulness and meditation don’t require any special setting or equipment. “You can do it in the privacy of your own home,” he says. “It’ doesn’t matter what the weather’s like. You can do breathing meditation when you’re sitting in the classroom. It’s portable, and it’s free.”
Grove served in the Army for five years and experienced combat in Iraq. Crowds are still stressful for him, and he gets anxious in the aisles of Target, where escape routes are limited. He looks for threats where none exist. But now, when he feels nervous, he uses breathing exercises to quiet his mind. He imagines himself hovering over a forest and visualizes his breath rustling the leaves on its way in, and again on its way out.
“If I can take a moment to breathe, to just be chill and calm down, things are fine,” he says. “I have a 1-and-a-half-year-old daughter. She loves going to Target. It’s not like I can avoid those areas. I’ve got to be there for her.”
Even with the encouraging success of the program, Dybdal plans to do more. She recently conducted a needs assessment for female veterans on campus, some of whom feel like an invisible population, because many people assume veterans are male. Dybdal learned from this assessment that female veterans value social support even more than their male counterparts. In response, Dybdal is offering a gender-specific mindfulness class for women veterans this spring and also partnering with Veterans Affairs to offer a Female Vets Empowerment Circle.
Dybdal and her research assistant Brandy Lumpkin also just finished a study on “mobile mindfulness” — using smartphone apps to teach mindfulness techniques. They researched half a dozen apps that the military developed. Eventually, Dybdal hopes to create an app of her own. She sees apps as a growth area for reaching veterans, who may be intimidated by a group setting but are willing to explore mindfulness on their phones.
Dybdal has found satisfaction in applying mindfulness techniques to a population who finds them so beneficial. “It’s a slow process, step-by-step, building a base,” she says. “But now we’re seeing the fruits of that in people like Casey Christensen.”
As for Christensen, he’s excited to be teaching yoga to veterans. The language he uses might be different than other yoga classes, but the message will be the same: Mindfulness is the path to finding peace within, even for warriors like him. •