The Paralympics – inspiration and therapy for PTSD

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After the success of the Olympics, we’re now enjoying the Paralympic games when athletes with a variety of disabilities get their opportunity to go for gold.

It’s an incredible source of inspiration for millions across the world, as the contenders demonstrate achievement against adversity. Some of the athletes are ex-soldiers wounded by war, and what a wonderful opportunity to rehabilitate and adapt their lives through success in sport.

Amputation can cause more trauma than just to the limb. Its mental repercussions can be devastating as the mind becomes overwhelmed by the associated psychological distress and struggles to cope.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a severe anxiety disorder with several debilitating symptoms including insomnia, anger, flashbacks and heightened awareness. This means that the individual is in a constant state of stress and fear massively impacting their lives. But for decades sport has been a source of hope and focus for many sufferers and research has shown that exercise can have a very positive effect.

There are three psychological theories explaining the antidepressant effect of sport and exercise. Firstly, there’s the social element that comes with taking part in an organised sport activity, secondly there’s the distraction component giving sufferers something else to channel their energy into and alter their focus.

Finally and most significantly there is the empowerment that sport and exercise can impart. The sufferer sees that they have the power to be capable and that they have the power to regain control over their own fitness levels and therefore their lives.

The injured soldiers of the Second World War took part in the earliest version of the Paralympic Games in 1948. Doctor Ludwig Guttmann hosted a sports competition for British war veterans with spinal injuries called “The 1948 International Wheelchair Games” which were intended to run parallel to the Olympics in the same year. Dr. Guttmann’s thinking was that sport was an excellent platform for both physical and mental rehabilitation.

David Richmond is the Defence Recovery Officer at Help for Heroes and is also the head of Tedworth House, which is one of five Personnel Recovery Centres for the severely injured soldiers who have completed their medical recovery but still require help to mentally rehabilitate.

Richmond comments: “If you have suffered a serious injury, your self-confidence has taken an almighty wallop. Sport is a really good way of showing guys what they can still do. You see the lights go back on … There is a direct impact on those who do the sport, but the spin off from the elite guys is the inspiration it offers to others. Self-confidence and self-esteem is rebuilt and redeveloped.”

It is in these recovery centres where Help for Heroes are implementing their new initiative along with the British Paralympic Association called, From Front Line to Start Line, finding new talent and nurturing it for future Paralympic games.

Derek Derenalagi, Paralympian discus thrower, became inspired by watching the Beijing games from his hospital bed.

With the foundations of the Paralympics so grounded in the rehabilitation of injured servicemen and women, it would be fantastic for 2016 for the Help for Heroes initiative to really advance the skills and mental well-being of our injured armed forces.

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