Project Healing Waters and Amarillo Fly Guys have teamed up to help returning war veterans deal with the transition to civilian life. Many have PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder). Amarillo’s CBS Station KFHD did a report (May 2011) on a group of these ex-soldiers in their fly-fishing experience on the Red River, which borders Oklahoma and North Texas. They describe how they can let go of their concerns while fishing. One vet described how her “force field” (moving her hands on an imaginary wall around her, at waist level to illustrate) started to melt away. She could begin to trust others as the group bonded together, learning how to fly-fish. In reality, the fly-fisher is using mindfulness in a very calm, but moderately controlled environment. The experience is described in detail in a different context by Norman Mclean in The River Runs Through It. The Red River is beautiful, but nothing like the rivers McLean fished in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho.
What happens to the brain of the soldier who has PTSD and who goes fly-fishing, and how critical are the senses in causing PTSD and healing it? An example like going on patrol is used to show which centers in the brain are active in that situation. This example is similar to other war situations that the soldier may strongly associate with the cause of the PTSD.
Brains of Fly Fishers
What is going on in the brain of a veteran with PTSD who fly-fish? The movement of the river water over the rocks is constantly oxygenating the water, making sounds that are soothing. The sounds vary, as the water moves over moss, then slick rock, as different currents crash into each other, as the bait lands in the water at the end of the cast with a faint “plop”. There is a very fresh smell to the air because there is no stagnant water. The view is calming, but fascinating as the river water twists and turns around, and above rocks of all sizes. The fisher must stand there casting a rod and waiting, body posture straight and visible to everyone else in the group. The fisher doesn’t have to listen for the sound of a foot or crack of a gun or other human sound. Instead, he or she can listen to the bird calls, the sound of small insects flying past, the croak of frogs, the rustle of the tall grass on the hill as the wind blows, without expecting any threat. The air is cool and wet.
Brains of Soldiers on Patrol
The sensations of a soldier scouting the Afghan hills are different. Water running in a river is an annoyance because it can mask the sound of a footfall or the fall of a pebble. Filtering out the environmental sounds (water, bird, insect) is critical to the brain as it focuses on the sounds that betray a dangerous human in that environment. The air is hot and dry, removing the water so critical for carrying smell. It is harder to unconsciously smell another person in that situation unless they are next to you sweating. It doesn’t matter as much to the soldier that the air smells fresh.
All of these senses add up together in the brain to trigger satiety in the fly-fisher. The lack of some of the senses adds up to satiety in the soldier. The body posture of the fisher is exactly the opposite of one in the face of war. The alertness to senses is different because the brain wants to make the person feel a part of the surrounding environment in a much more permanent way than he or she could when at war, since he or she had to keep moving or hiding from sight. The fly fisher is now retraining the brain to use the senses to stay alert to something that is nonthreatening (a fish).
Think of the brain as a computer which runs programs. It is conscious of many of these programs but some are only run unconsciously. Most programs are made up of subroutines which can work in different programs. Any single program has a unique group of subroutines. The subroutines of the unconscious brain will prepare the body physiologically for all expected situations. When at war, these expected situations involved fight or flight mechanisms, and thus the program included instructions to specific centers to send signals to stimulate respiratory, blood pressure, and heart rate centers, increasing these physiological responses.
When the vet learns how to fly-fish, he or she is now in a situation not expecting fight or flight. In fact, the less movement the person makes, the more likely they will catch a fish. Waiting is a benefit. In a state of war, a person having to wait in ambush will have the heart racing in anticipation. Fly-fishing can also cause the heart to race, but only when the person sees the fish, feels the tug on the fishing line, or smells the fish unconsciously. It is a very short period of time, unlike what can seem like eons to a person in combat who also has so many other things going on in the body. The need to crouch down or make oneself invisible to a human is so different from making oneself unnoticeable to a fish.
We can imagine that in a combat situation, there might be at least 30 different centers very active in the soldier, just in the brainstem. Three centers might involve basic metabolism of cells, tissues and organs, emotion centers associated with each, separate centers for heart, lungs, and blood vessels associated with each of the metabolism centers, sensory input centers associated with touch, pain, temperature, pressure, proprioception from the body that send signals to each of the metabolism centers. Each of the metabolism centers would have its own analysis center, which ranks each of the senses in importance as it comes in.
The brainstem also should take in information from an archive of body memories of past events to determine what to plan for in the present event. Each analysis center should also get information from predictive centers which take into account the changes taking place in the external environment to tell the analysis centers what needs to change in its program. There should be justification centers which monitor every second of the event and tell the analysis center when the predicted outcomes do not match the actual outcomes coming into the brain from the rest of the body via the senses. When a match occurs, there should be three satiety centers that will send signals to the hypothalamic satiety center to trigger satisfaction. However, in the combat situation, these signals will have very short duration. It seems the brain is never completely satisfied until the entire situation is over and the soldier has reached complete safety.
In the fly-fisher brain, the scenario should be very different. There may be less than 10 active centers while the person stands there waiting for a fish to bite. The first time the soldier fishes, anticipation may be high, causing the scenario to appear very much as described for the soldier on patrol, but should be far less active with each subsequent fishing experience. Theoretically, centers active in this more peaceful endeavor should include only one emotion center, all metabolism centers, and only one analysis center, fewer active cells in the midbrain’s satiety center. The other satiety centers should be active only for extremely short periods of time. However, the satiety center in the hypothalamus should be contacted for longer durations with stronger signals from the midbrain’s satiety center. The midbrain’s satiety center should do this throughout the entire period of anticipation, unlike what happens in the soldier anticipating danger.
Each subsequent patrol and fly-fishing trip will cause changes in the brain. Both will refine their sensory reception, making it even more acute. However, the soldier on patrol will probably keep the same number of cells active in the brainstem, and the fight-or-flight response will be heightened much more quickly. The soldier who fly-fishes should have fewer cells active in the brainstem, paring them down, over time, to only those which had previously given good information to the analysis centers and led to the greatest satiety in the fisher. Satiety may mean catching a fish, but it may mean just being able to completely escape the stresses of life during non-fishing time. Using fewer cells in the brainstem means a more efficient use of energy there and a much faster return to equilibrium than during the first fishing trip.
Repairing the Damaged Brain in PTSD
The brain uses analogy to teach itself and to re-program itself when necessary. The fly-fishing trip gives the brain an analogous situation for the returning soldier. The same senses are being activated, but they are different in an outdoor environment–which would normally make the soldier on patrol feel vulnerable, but now they consciously know they should feel safe. The analogy is used to re-program conscious and unconscious thought processes.
Conscious thought processes involve reassuring him or her that, even though he or she is outdoors with other soldiers, (s)he is safe. They also include all the thoughts the soldier has while negotiating a trek to the water, positioning him- or herself to cast a fly, telling him- or herself to relax, breathe deeply, take in the smells of the surrounding plants and water. Unconscious thought processes involve triggering the right programs to help the soldier smell the water and orient the trek towards it, walk to the water’s edge without falling or tripping, notice the rocks along the path and how to bypass them, how to mount the fly, negotiate the right posture to keep, holding the rod just right, making the movements necessary for casting a fly. The images flashing through the mind, even the fleeting ones, are all part of this unconscious thought process.
All of these thought processes are part of the brain teaching itself the right circuits to program as part of a recovering brain. It finds the damaged circuits, repairs them, and recruits the best cells to become part of a network involved in making this trip successful for the fisher. Through mindfulness techniques, a person can learn how to use those fleeting images to tell him what the brain is doing, what needs to be repaired, and how to direct repair as a conscious process.
See my other postings on Helping Soldiers with Brain Injury to Return to War, Types of PTSD, and Physiological Responses to Terror. Also, see the report The Impact of War: To Rehabilitate Young Vets, Go Hunting from NPR’s All Things Considered, 12 June 2012.
North Texas Project Healing Waters has other information and resources for veterans who want to go fly-fishing.
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