Battling Pill Fatigue, Military Veterans Turn To Massage, CST And Reflexology For PTSD Relief
U.S. Army veteran Erika Quinn suffers from severe PTSD and depression—and she is finding relief from a program that offers affordable integrative therapies to veterans in Richmond, Virginia.
Last year, massage therapist Karen W. Henderson founded Veterans Resiliency Holistic Clinic as a way to support veterans recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Massage for PTSD is applied, along with other bodywork therapies.
The clinic is open to both veterans and family members where a $25 donation is suggested for the services.
But those who cannot pay are never turned away.
“It is a peaceful, serene place where I feel I can be safe and receive the treatment that is conducive to my healing,” said Quinn .
She loves reflexology, and Quinn has also found CranioSacral Therapy to be particularly helpful.
“Right after the sessions I feel more relaxed and less stressed,” she said. “I’m excited to see what the future will bring, and I am very grateful for the resiliency clinic,” said Quinn.
The program was born of Henderson’s own journey through PTSD. “My energy was always centered around how touch could help trauma,” said Henderson, who operates a private massage and wellness practice, The Wright Touch.
The clinic is open once a month at Unity of Richmond Church, where volunteers offer free services, including but not limited to wellness coaching, craniosacral therapy, reflexology and somatic experiencing.
Veterans can book themselves for as many modalities as they wish, depending on their preference; some services require appointments.
Personal PTSD Experience
After experiencing trauma long ago, Henderson turned to holistic options—including CST—for relief.
Henderson said CST helped set her on the path to healing when medications and other therapies failed. She thought it could do the same for veterans dealing with PTSD, which guided her decision to start the clinic under the nonprofit Herbalists Without Borders.
“For many years, I didn’t even know what PTSD was. I had no idea,” she said, “[but] after my major trauma I just knew that I was never the same.”
“My husband was a Vietnam vet. He was the one who had the PTSD, not me,” she said.
For Henderson, the gentle rocking movements of CST relaxed her in a way where she was able to slowly let go of her trauma. She found it served as sort of a reset button, as did Somatic Touch Experience sessions.
Early retirement from her job with the USDA, due to health issues, found her looking for something else to fill her time. That’s when Henderson discovered massage school, and a new journey to wellness opened up her eyes.
Massage for PTSD
At her all-volunteer clinic, Henderson uses many modalities from her training to help veterans seeking treatment outside of allopathic medicine. She and her team of about 10 volunteers welcome vets to pause and take time for themselves once a month.
The one-stop-shop in integrative medicine caught the eye of Jared Smyser, a former Marine.
“Karen and all who volunteer at the clinic are so welcoming and inspiring,” said Smyser, who now serves as the clinic’s wellness coach and mindfulness practitioner.
“This team has become friends of mine, and I look forward to getting together each month to serve my fellow veterans,” he said.
With several types of modalities offered, including acupuncture, yoga, reflexology, massage for PTSD, CST and more, veterans have the option to experience unique offerings a traditional doctor’s office wouldn’t offer.
Benefits of massage for PTSD include the opportunity to relax and experience a time of nurturance and self-connection. Massage for military veterans is a growing specialty.
The goal, ultimately, is for veterans to find a holistic modality that works best for them to relax their nervous system that releases them from a past traumatic experience.
Smyser works with veterans to achieve mindfulness goals, but he once was a client at the clinic. After serving nine years in the Marine Corps, with multiple deployments to Iraq and Central and South America, Smyser found his nerves frayed and PTSD rearing its head.
After his discharge, he worked for a nonprofit to train civilians and military in high-stress environments the basis of mindfulness resilience skills. When he discovered the clinic, he knew he had an opportunity to share his passion with other vets.
“Holistic approaches such as mindfulness offer noninvasive ways to enhance health that empower them to make changes and see for themselves what is helpful and what is not,” Smyser said.
The idea of using holistic methods for veterans in particular is gaining in popularity.
Nationally, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has rolled out a national “whole health” system for vets that offers acupuncture, yoga, tai chi and other integrative mental health therapy options.
In 2018, the VA will launch several sites to incorporate such well-being programs.
Flagship sites around the U.S. will offer services where vets focus on self-healing and self-care techniques.
The VA can be an excellent resource, said Henderson.
While she firmly believes in a whole-body approach and loves the work her clinic offers, she wants veterans to know her clinic won’t always have all the answers they need.
It’s her personal perspective that veterans are over-treated with pharmaceutical drugs, but she keeps her work and that of her volunteers within legal scope of practice.
“We’re not there to replace the mental health community,” she said. “We’re not replacing the medical community. We’re not even replacing the veteran community.”
From her own experience, she understands the pharmaceutical path sometimes doesn’t work and that an integrative one should be available and affordable.
Smyser agreed. “A lot of vets such as myself are tired of being given pills to mask our symptoms, and thirst for answers and understanding about the root of the issues,” he said.
“[Integrative] approaches help retrain the nervous system to release stored-up trauma and move back into the natural state of balance,” Smyser said.
Because the integrative modalities require highly skilled practitioners, the clinic founder doesn’t take education lightly. All practitioners are certified or licensed in their respective fields.
Henderson is a certified massage therapist, and holds masters degrees in therapeutic herbalism and public health, and certification as a biodynamic craniosacral therapist and health coach. She’s also a clinical herbalist.
But she’s quick to point out that she’s also no doctor and her clinic is not meant to replace traditional medicine for vets.
Wholeness and Wellness
While releasing trauma is a goal, it isn’t necessarily a focus during a session. The plan is always overall wholeness and wellness, Henderson said.
“When they go home, they sleep better; they have better digestion, they are feeling more whole as a person,” she said.
“We don’t even get into discussions about trauma unless they need to bring it up,” said Henderson. “Right now, we’re just helping their nervous system get regulated.”
Talia Moser, a certified reflexologist volunteer, said it isn’t uncommon for vets to be a bit closed-off.
“I may not know initially all their story or their background. But they really respond to reflexology,” said Moser. “They do give me good feedback that it helps certain conditions. If it helps their minds relax, that’s huge. That affects the whole body.”
Moser said much tension from anxiety and stress often manifests within the gut, an area she regularly works on with the four to five veterans she sees each month.
“Bodywork is really good, because it focuses on energy,” she said.
For 45 minutes, Moser presses and holds feet or hands to stimulate circulation deep throughout the body.
“Feet are amazing. Feet are easier to work on in a sense because … there’s more precise areas of reflex points to stimulate,” said Moser.
During her sessions, she also offers mini-lessons filled with reflexology tips for veterans to take back home.
Personalized attention, especially for the veteran population who are often used to being quickly passed over, is one of the more important parts of being a volunteer, Moser said.
“I give them a lot of education on it so they are able to do as much as they want with it,” Moser said. “It’s not like we’ve got to get them in and get them out like at doctors’ offices.”
Moser said the respectful environment is one of the reasons she comes back to volunteer her time. Loud noises can trigger PTSD for some vets, so there are quiet areas for them to relax in. For chattier veterans, there’s an area to engage in conversations as well.
“It feels just really comfortable, friendly, casual and accommodating,” said Moser of the clinic atmosphere.
To see the life-changing work happening, even if it’s only once a month is reward enough for Moser.
“As they gently let go and start to share things with me, I love to hear their stories. It’s poignant and unique and personal and just so valuable,” said Moser.
“That’s part of the great benefit I get out of it,” she added. “It’s just quality time with another human being who did something great.”
While clinic volunteers are still working to get the word out, future planning is very much a challenge. Expansion plans are a huge goal on the horizon, and it’s one the volunteers hope comes to fruition
Herbalists Without Borders is working with Henderson to locate grants that would support her goal of establishing a weekly clinic. Her biggest dream is to see a mobile unit that connects with vets in rural areas, inner cities and on Native American reservations as well.
“I would like to see us to become an organization that’s able to show the people coming in that the modalities we practice have efficacy,” Henderson said. “It saved my life. I want everybody to experience what I experienced.”
About the Author
Seraine Page is an award-winning journalist based out of Southwest Florida. She enjoys writing about health, wellness and travel. Her work has been published in Discover Kitsap, AAA Journey Magazine, DAYSPA Magazine, SANDBOXX, and others. She has written many articles for massagemag.com, including “A Whole-Family Model of Massage” and “Pain Relief and Palliative Care: You Can Become Certified in This Specialty.”