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Soldiers are often forced into flow or die situations during intense training, or in real-life battlefields. Situations which call for the most focus and attention one can muster and pour their every being into the task at hand, engineering survival.
Soldiers have reported that they feel more alive in flow than in any other moments in their lives. So much so, that they tend to have a desire to re-experience this sensation which can drive soldiers to return to the blood-soaked battlefields despite the awareness of its dangers.
War has its prices, especially on the soldiers who experience tremendous levels of stress often leading to PTSD. The consequent mental conditions can be so debilitating and due to its nature, prevent many from being able to live and experience moments in the here and now. Traumatizing flashbacks and vigilant thoughts often pull PTSD victims straight out of the present moment or prevent them from focusing solely on the task at hand.
Unfortunately, there are still no known treatment options which can consistently alleviate symptoms in PTSD patients. Prolonged exposure therapy (P.E.) — the treatment option considered to be the most effective — faces the problem of high drop-out rates as it involves the gradual exposure of the patient to a traumatic stimulus. Seal et al. (2010) showed that only 9.5% of 49,425 U.S. veterans attended the recommended nine treatment sessions during a 15-week program. As an alternative to P.E., medication options for PTSD have been shown to only slightly reduce symptoms across several studies. However, these options may leave patients at high risk of experiencing side effects or becoming addicted rendering treatment options ineffective for these disorders. Therefore, it is important to look at alternative treatment options to help alleviate the suffering of these patients.
This is where flow therapy may be an interesting research field for PTSD or other mental disorders alike. Eleonora Riva from the University of Milano outlines how Flow therapy aims to instil the principles of Flow into the subject’s life to help foster positive change in their behaviour and approach to life. Flow therapy has been successful in both group and individual interventions with participants displaying an understanding of Flow experiences, and are able to proactively manage and produce Flow experiences. Studies have shown that finding Flow has played a crucial role in treatment adherence, treatment outcomes, and improved functioning in daily life among individuals undergoing programs in physical rehabilitation, eating disorders and obesity.
A great case study for flow and mental health is the work by Clemens Ley, a researcher at the Institute of Sport Science in Vienna, Austria. She is fascinated by the idea of using Flow-inducing interventions to alleviate PTSD symptoms. She conducted a three-year study with torture and war survivors, who had come from various conflict-torn countries. Twice a week for three months the participants engaged in a sport and exercise therapy program which included Flow-inducing games and activities such as basketball, dance tasks and art therapy. Ley found that despite their mental health problems, in a short time the survivors were able to experience Flow and not only find relief from their everyday trauma but relished the flow-inducing activities. They reported that the intervention facilitated an experience full of pleasure, a distraction from their regular illness-related distractions and thoughts, and allowed them to truly be in the here and now.
It is no wonder programs such as ‘Operation Surf’ an organisation that teaches wounded soldiers how to surf has had such success. Studies from this program reported that military participants have decreased their PTSD symptoms by 36%, depression by 47%, and increased confidence by 68%.
The integration of flow as a framework for therapeutic solutions is in its infancy, but it certainly offers great hope for current and future mental health patients.
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