Over the past two decades, there has been a growing awareness of the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on U.S. military veterans. One in three veterans who receive medical treatment from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have been diagnosed with PTSD — including nearly one-third of Vietnam War veterans, 11 percent of veterans from the war in Afghanistan and nearly 10 percent of Gulf War veterans.
PTSD treatments have primarily focused on different psychotherapy solutions, including cognitive behavior therapy, exposure therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, as well as prescribed medications, including antidepressants and antianxiety drugs. However, another approach is being studied by Robin Gustafson, a professor of psychology at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU). Working with Deborah Denefield, a dance instructor in Louisville, Kentucky, Gustafson is tracking the potential therapeutic value of community dance in the PTSD healing process, as well as in helping veterans who were recovering from a brain injury received while in service.
In a Louisville-based program called “Dancing Well: The Soldier Project,” 17 veterans and their accompanying family members participated in a 10-week experiment consisting of weekly 90-minute community dances featuring live music and dance calling by Denefield. Gustafson explained that people with PTSD respond positively if there is predictability in their routine and if they maintain connectivity with the wider world — but those considerations often fail to overlap.
“Connecting with human beings is not very predictable,” Gustafson stated. “And that creates a vicious cycle: you need predictability but you end up staying in the house and not connecting with people in the community.”
Denefield’s community dances, she added, bring both human contact and a sense of predictability, as the dance calling “tells everyone what to do and when.” Gustafson noted that the dances staged for the project were “slower and quieter” than the contra-style dancing that most people associate with community dances. Denefield worked with Edwin O. Walker, a staff psychiatrist at the nonprofit Dancing Well, in developing the dances used in this program.
Before and after each community dance program, Gustafson conducted measurements on the veterans and their family members related to connectedness, experience avoidance, hope and optimism and she combined her findings into what she dubbed “a simple wellness score.” Gustafson recorded positive feedback from both the veterans and the family members.
“Although it was a small sampling, we found significant improvement from the participants,” she said, noting that the program had a smaller than normal sampling for a project of this magnitude. “It takes a lot of time to collect data from people recovering from PTSD.”
Gustafson was assisted in her research and data analysis by three now-former WCSU students: Carlos Jiminez, Tyla Johnson and Marlon Tristao, who is a veteran. Cynthia Corbitt, a biology professor at the University of Louisville, also participated with on-site work.
The result of the research culled from “Dancing Well: The Soldier Project” was an academic paper submitted to the Journal of Veteran Studies. Gustafson noted the publication accepted the paper and expected it to be published in 2019.