Local vet credits ART with helping him overcome wartime trauma

| Academic & Student Affairs, COPH Home Page Feed, COPH Office of Research, Featured News, Monday Letter, Offices, Our Research

In June, the state of Florida passed into law House Bill 501, allowing the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs to contract with a state university to provide and evaluate alternative treatment options for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injuries.

Florida is the only state in the nation to have such legislation.

The USF College of Public Health (COPH) was awarded the contract in large part due to Dr. Kevin Kip, a Distinguished USF Health Professor and a leading accelerated resolution therapy (ART) researcher. Kip teaches epidemiology and biostatistics at the COPH.

Per the bill, the other forms of therapy to be researched include equine therapy, music therapy, the use of service animals and hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which delivers oxygen to the body under higher-than-normal pressure.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis traveled to USF to sign legislation enhancing treatment options for veterans with PTSD. (Photo courtesy of USF News)

ART is an alternative treatment whereby patients perform left-to-right eye movements (similar to rapid eye movements) by following a clinician’s hand motions. This technique enhances image rescripting to change how a patient remembers a traumatic event.

According to Kip and other experts, ART delivers results in just a handful of sessions and seems particularly effective in treating PTSD, a chronic and disabling psychiatric disorder that causes sufferers to relive their trauma and the heightened arousal and reactivity that goes with it. Research shows that PTSD affects up to 20 percent of military personnel returning from combat areas.

Brian Anderson was one of them.

The now-retired Green Beret served in the military for 14 years and had three deployments―one to Iraq and two more to Afghanistan. In one six-month period during his last deployment, five of Anderson’s teammates died. Three from combat, one from a drug overdose and another to suicide.

Brian Anderson during one of his three deployments. (Photo courtesy of Brian Anderson)

Anderson left the military shortly after and moved to Florida.

But he was changed.

“There are years I really don’t even remember,” said Anderson, who described his life with PTSD as “chaos.” “I would be driving and look over at the car next to me and see my dead teammate,” he said. “I would have flashes of rage. I would be washing dishes and see bullets going through my head. I pushed my family and friends away and kept myself isolated. I felt like I was going crazy. My mind was always screaming. I didn’t have balance.”

During that period, Anderson says he also felt physical pain. He threw his back out. His shoulders and neck hurt. “I had constant pain because my body was forever in this fight-or-flight mode. I was hyper vigilant 24/7.” By this time Anderson had enlisted in the National Guard and learned of ART after he was sent home early from a two-week training drill.

“I don’t really know what happened,” he said, “but on the first day I started panicking. I was pulled from training and sent home. A week later I heard from a friend that USF was doing work with ART and I should try it. I started working with Dr. Kip and the developer of the therapy [Laney Rosenzweig, who, at the time, was a USF assistant visiting professor]. I went through one session with Laney. She’s waving her hand back and forth and I’m thinking to myself, this isn’t going to work. But I started to feel better. I went through some pretty heavy stuff, like finding my two friends after they’d been killed, and I was getting through the story. After that first session, those and other traumatic images stopped. I felt cured. I started to find a norm in life after war.”

ART uses hand motions to bring about what practitioners call “image rescripting.” (Photo courtesy of Dr. Kip)

But while Anderson may have thought he was cured, his family and friends disagreed. They pointed out that he was still depressed, angry and isolated. A year after his first and only ART session, Anderson went back for more.

“I knew I needed to do more digging,” he said. “I went back to ART so I could be a better boss, husband, father and human being. We all want to get to a better version of ourselves.  ART is like brain fitness on steroids. It’s amazing what it does.”

Anderson now heads up the Veterans Alternative, a nonprofit organization with locations in Holiday, Fla., and Tampa, that brings alternative treatment therapies for PTSD to veterans and their families. In addition to ART, the group also offers therapies not traditionally available through the Veterans Health Administration―things like yoga, meditation, equine and music therapy and camaraderie-building activities.

“The motto of the Green Beret is ‘free the oppressed,’ ” said Anderson, who’s also a masters student in social work at Columbia University in NYC. “When I found ART, it opened my eyes to what life could be like post war and post trauma. I wanted to make sure other service members coming home could live a good life after war, too.”

Anderson says he doesn’t like labeling post-traumatic stress a “disorder.”

“I like looking at it as post-trauma growth,” he explains. “It’s using the experiences we’ve gone through to catapult us to the great things we can do after trauma. I’m excited to be a part of this COPH research and tell my story of getting past trauma.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health