9 Jan, 2019
Thanks to Medibank’s ‘Mental Health & Wellbeing Fund’, researchers at GMRF are exploring the science of compassion by working on improving the adaptive coping skills of returned service personnel struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Feelings of shame and self-criticism can be common among former service personnel, as they struggle to reconcile deployment experiences. When compounded with PTSD, the effects can be devastating. Shame has been proposed as a significant contributing factor in suicide risk for this group.
The GMRF Veteran Mental Health Research Unit will trial the use of Compassionate Mind Training for veterans and their partners in what will be the first study of this approach to involve partners of our ex-service population.
Compassionate Mind Training is a skills building off-shoot of Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT), which was developed specifically for individuals with high levels of shame and self-criticism, and has been used successfully to reduce distress symptoms in a variety of psychological and medical conditions. It has also been shown to have protective benefits, such as increased acceptance of self and others, and self-soothing following trauma exposure.
Measurements of life satisfaction, happiness and immune functioning are some of the indicators of wellbeing shown to increase following CFT.
GMRF clinical psychologist and project researcher Dr Sarah Hampton is investigating whether quality of life, relationship satisfaction, PTSD symptom severity and psychological distress symptoms will improve as
a result of participating in the pilot study. Groups will participate in
two sessions per week for six weeks, learning strategies to calm highly charged emotions and to more strongly engage feelings of warmth and self-reassurance. During the sessions, Dr Hampton says participants will learn ways to work with potential feelings of guilt and shame with compassion.
“Practising compassion towards oneself is particularly effective because the veteran may feel they do not deserve self-care or kindness and this can be a significant block to PTSD recovery. There is increasing evidence that compassionate behaviours, such as the giving and receiving of affection, kindness and care, stimulates feelings of warmth, calmness and contentment, which can naturally help regulate difficult emotions such as fear, anxiety, anger, stress and shame.”
“We want to cultivate an attitude in veterans that says, ‘I’m worthy of compassion’,” Dr Hampton says.
Another crucial feature of the GMRF pilot study is the involvement of partners of ex-serving personnel who themselves report high rates of mental health challenges. From her clinical experience, Dr Hampton has seen several veterans who, while they may be reluctant to seek professional help, have a strong desire to learn more ways to connect emotionally with their partners to improve
“Partners undertaking therapy together learn a common language and strategies, they hold each other accountable and help each other when the treatment has finished. Our veteran/partner groups will be learning compassionate communication, such as expressing appreciation, asking for what we need and responding to criticism.”
Principal investigator of the study, Dr Madeline Romaniuk, wanted to bring together research and practice when developing this project. She noticed
the lack of interventions aimed at both veterans and partners available in current clinical practice, despite scientific evidence demonstrating that partner involvement in mental health treatment leads to greater outcomes.
“It is very hard to change old habits or implement meaningful changes in your life if your other half is not on the same page. We want to give veterans and their partners the opportunity to learn and develop adaptive and healthy ways to manage difficult emotions, behaviours and communication patterns together.”
As researchers unpick the complexity of PTSD and associated psychological scars of war, programs that increase the participants’ understanding of their reactions to trauma and strengthen their sense of self-worth have shown to have a compounding effect on wellbeing.
“The potential benefits of compassion-based therapies are well documented, and yet there has been very little research done in the veteran space, until now.”
Dr Romaniuk says.