The best treatment for PTSD may not be pharmaceuticals or one-on-one therapy, but a revolutionary non-drug approach developed by Dr. James Gordon at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine. In this feature in the February issue of Spirit Magazine (now called Southwest: the Magazine), I report on how military health care providers—and the veterans they treat—are embracing unorthodox therapies like meditation, biofeedback, and guided imagery because they work.
During the ten weeks they partipated in the Department of Defense's study on mind-body therapies, these veterans found support in one another
I’m standing in a dimly lit hotel conference room packed with 200 strangers as the German electronic music is cued up. “Start shaking,” a reassuringly calm voice intones. “Don’t open your eyes. Let everything go.” I wriggle my arms and move my shoulders up and down in a shrugging motion. At the same time, I’m bouncing in place and jiggling my butt. Forcing myself to keep from laughing aloud, I think, How ridiculous we must look!
But I keep at it, and as I do, something interesting happens. All the tension from that morning’s drive through beastly San Francisco traffic begins to slough off like snow from a rooftop. My neck and back feel looser, almost as if I’d had a massage. My self-consciousness fades, and I start to enjoy the sensation of shaking. A minute or so in, I crack open an eyelid and see that everyone—including our instructor—is bopping wildly.
“Three minutes left!” the voice says. There are a few loud whoops from around the room.
A few minutes later—though it feels like an eternity—the percussive, electronic sounds stop abruptly, and we are told to breathe deeply for 60 seconds before launching into a freestyle dance. “Let the music move you!” says the voice. As Bob Marley wails “every little thing is gonna be all right,” the mood in the room shifts to that of a beachside nightclub. We’ve opened our eyes by now, and people are really boogying—gyrating their hips, raising their arms in the air. It’s exhilarating. By the end of the song, I feel bound to these strangers by a shared joy in movement.
The soothing voice is that of James S. Gordon, founder and director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C. And this is not some strange New Age aerobics class but the beginning of the CMBM’s intensive, five-day training of an assortment of health professionals in the science of mind-body medicine—a range of techniques that facilitates the brain’s ability to affect bodily functions and symptoms. Dr. Gordon, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist and professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, is constantly crisscrossing the globe to lead trainings like this one at the Sofitel in Redwood City.
A charismatic presence with a grandfatherly demeanor, Gordon starts each session with the “shaking” meditation—a jubilant, freeing exercise that helps people break up fixed mental and biological patterns. Gordon’s book Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression describes this and other mind-body therapies in detail. “Expressive” meditations like shaking are not new. They have been used in many cultures and include the whirling of Sufi dervishes, Native American chanting and dancing, and the spontaneous movement that is part of the Indonesian spiritual exercise called the latihan.