Veterans explore ‘outdoor therapy’ to treat PTSD

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CONROE, Texas (Nexstar) — Like many veterans, when Texas-native Cam Rojas returned from overseas, he was not the same person.

When station in Afghanistan as a marine, Rojas had to watch one of his friends die from an explosive device they set off during an ambush. Rojas also suffered a spine injury from the impact of the explosion, which soon after forced him to medically retire.

“People tend to ask veterans, ‘what is the hardest thing about the military?’ and I think they’re caught off guard when we tell them it’s getting out,” he said.

Following his return home in 2011, Rojas went into a downward spiral — coping with his stress and depression through alcohol.

“There was probably two or three years that I really don’t remember because of the amount of alcohol that I was consuming at the time,” he said. “I just really lost sight of who I was.”

Rojas describes himself as close with his family, who tried intervening numerous times. But it wasn’t until a stranger from a group called “Serve Outdoors” gave Rojas a cold call, inviting him to go on a trip with other veterans. It was a duck hunting trip, but Rojas said it had nothing to do with the hunting — and everything to do with disconnecting from everything in the great outdoors that opened his eyes again.

“That one phone call saved my life. It really did,” Rojas said. “Here I am looking out on this on this pond…everything around me is coming to life. And I’m part of it. And I was thinking to myself, ‘I can be part of something bigger again.'”

Rojas is one of many veterans experiencing with outdoor or wilderness therapy, a relatively experimental tool for treating symptoms of PTSD backed by decades of research.

Jammie Schmunk, a certified forest therapist, based in Conroe, works with clients who have suffered traumatic events or struggle with addiction. She said it sounds simple, but there is a reason it works.

“When we slow the body down, the nervous system slows down. And the stress automatically just melts away,” Schmunk said. “The intended effect of that is just to be practice being present in your body and not in your head so much.”

The practice of outdoor therapy is grounded in a centuries old practice from Japanese culture called “shinrin-yoku” or “forest bathing.” It was formally recognized in 1982 and backed by scientific research. One keynote study found subjects who did 24 different forest walks had significantly lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone), blood pressure and pulse rate after each session. Additionally, their seratonin levels (a mood-boosting hormone) increased.

“If you keep doing it…we have that experience of being connected to something bigger than us,” Schmunk said. “You can’t help feel that when you’re breathing through your heart space and you’re surrounded by the trees, feeling the wind on your skin. We’re reminded that we’re not alone, there’s something bigger, and that we’re okay in this moment.”

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