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Trauma and the damage (un)done


This story will appear in the Summer 2012 edition of the Flame magazine.

School of Community and Global Health student Mark Dust knows about trauma first-hand. After serving four years in the US infantry, with one year in Iraq, he returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder. He is not only managing his affliction, but is working to help others manage—even prevent—theirs.

Dust was stationed in Baghdad, where he spent 12 hours a day manning the gun turret as his Humvee patrolled the city and its environs. For those 12 hours he was both hunter and hunted: on the lookout for enemy activity while he and his platoon simultaneously made themselves a prominent target for attack.

“You have to keep vehicles away from you, you can’t let people walk up to you, you literally have life and death in your hands,” he said. “And you never know what is going to happen. You can go a week, a month, two months, with no incidents. But then there will be a whole week where you’re shot at everyday.”

Not to mention blown up. One day while on patrol, an IED (improvised explosive device) was detonated by cell phone just as Dust’s truck was about to drive over it. Thankfully, the shell exploded a second too early, and Dust considers himself lucky to have only received a face full of hot oil and scratched corneas.

In 2006, he safely returned home to his family in California in one piece, though his years of service left a mental toll. Like approximately 30 percent of America’s Iraqi and Afghanistan War veterans, Dust returned with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by witnessing or experiencing a life-threatening traumatic event, which then overwhelms the victim’s ability to cope with everyday life.

In Baghdad, Dust’s hyper-vigilance was a necessity for a job where he could be killed at any moment—or might have to kill someone else. After returning home, turning off that heightened awareness proved impossible.

“One of the most troubling experiences I had when I first got back happened while I was driving my family to Disneyland,” he said. “I saw some trash on the side of the road and it looked very similar to the trash pile that was hiding the IED that blew me up in Iraq. And I responded just like I would have if I were in Baghdad. I stomped on the gas pedal and swerved to get out of the kill zone. I couldn’t comprehend that I was back in California.”

In the midst of Dust’s struggles to acclimate himself to civilian life, he enrolled in the Executive MBA program at CGU’s Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management. In Professor Jeremy Hunter’s “Executive Mind” class, Dust would be sure to seat himself where he could scan the entire room and check for any threats. But it was also in that room that he found relief from his condition.

Hunter’s “Executive Mind” courses are designed to teach executives how to better regulate their mind—through managing their central nervous systems—so that their decisions are based on facts, logic, and reason, and not on anger or stress. Dust found that those same mindfulness techniques Hunter taught his students also helped combat PTSD symptoms.

“When I started feeling dysregulated, coming into an unfamiliar situation or seeing trash on the side of the road, I learned to recognize my body’s physiological response faster and realize how to intercede to stop myself,” he said.

After receiving his EMBA, Dust learned about CGU’s School of Community and Global Health (SCGH) and realized continuing his studies there would perfectly compliment his new business skills.

“I know someone with a business degree doesn’t usually pursue a PhD in public health,” he said. “But I think it’s a unique combination that will help me look at the business aspects of research and how it can be best applied—not necessarily for profit, but for the most good.”

But Dust is not waiting to receive his degree to do good. Through Hunter, he was introduced to the Trauma Resource Institute (TRI) in Claremont, a nonprofit organization that helps people whose resiliency has been damaged by exposure to trauma. He joined the staff and is currently project manager on an extension to an innovation grant TRI received, from the San Bernardino County Department of Mental Health, to teach its Community Resiliency Model (CRM) to 30 war veterans and 20 of their family members.

CRM is a mind-body intervention that focuses on the biological basis of trauma and lists three steps for overcoming the rush of activation resulting from PTSD. Dust never takes off a silicone bracelet inscribed with CRM’s recipe: “Grounding + Resourcing + Shift & Stay = Resilience.” Those steps lead the sufferer away from anxiety and towards increased physical awareness and positivity that, if maintained, can bring the parts of the brain affected by PTSD back under control.

Dust has also been trained in TRI’s Trauma Resiliency Model (TRM), which is designed for use by therapists to treat PTSD. While TRM has shown to be effective in treating those with PTSD, Dust is also interested in seeing if it also helps prevent people from developing the affliction. Both the mindfulness techniques Dust learned in Hunter’s class and those in TRM exercise the body’s parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). It is the PNS that can bring the fight-or-flight response associated with PTSD under control. And maybe exercising the PNS before experiencing trauma will create a resistance to acquiring PTSD symptoms in the future.

“You do bicep curls to make your arms strong, maybe we can do exercises to make your nervous system strong. That’s what I came into the PhD program to do, to experiment with the idea of strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system to see if it has an effect on preventing the development of PTSD,” Dust said.

If Dust is able to demonstrate that PNS can be strengthened—and he has already designed experiments—he thinks it could be a breakthrough with almost limitless potential. This is because PTSD doesn’t just affect war veterans, but millions in the civilian population who have experienced traumatic events.

“I need to prove that prevention will work, and based on my experiences I think it will. If it does, we could give this training to soldiers in basic training or in the work up before they enter a war zone,” Dust said. “But this could be useful for anyone. Just imagine if we worked on building a resilient society. There would be less alcoholism, less drug abuse, less suicides—all of which are often the result of undiagnosed PTSD.”

More information on Dust’s experience with PTSD, and his efforts to combat and prevent it in others, can be found on his blog, Ramblings on Trauma:

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