3941157 Being mindful of the present in order to heal

U.S. Air Force Airmen enrolled in the First Term Airman Course practice meditation, as a resiliency skill, to combat stress at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. July 20, 2017. (Photo by Airman 1st Class Alexandra Singer)

By Caitlin M. Kenney

Close your eyes. Check in with yourself. Notice your thoughts. Inhale, and exhale. Releasing, relaxing.

These are some of the things heard during a guided mindfulness session, and one healthcare company is giving veterans and their families a space to practice mindfulness from their own phones.

Cigna is offering a free, weekly program called “Mindfulness for Vets” to help manage pain and stress, as well as encourage general wellness. They identified that the veteran population has a higher rate of chronic pain, has seen a 270 percent increase in opioid prescriptions over a 12 year period, and veterans are twice as likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than non-veterans, according to a press release on the program.

Exclusively for veterans, these call-in sessions are every Tuesday at 4 p.m. central time. Call 1-888-244-6260 and enter in passcode 536435 to join. As it is still a new service, Cigna is hoping to spread the word to the veteran community.

For a veteran’s family and caregiver, they can call Cigna’s Mindfulness Drop-in sessions, open to everyone, Mondays and Thursdays at 5 p.m. central time at 1-888-244-6260 and entering in passcode 388032.

With around 40 years of experience in mindfulness, Richard Bonk leads the sessions for Cigna and has worked with veterans in mindfulness in the past at the VA.

Quoting Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of mindfulness-based stress reduction, Bonk said it is “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, as if your life depends on it.”

“A big aspect of mindfulness is cultivating present moment awareness. It helps us to become more aware of what’s going on for us: emotionally, physically, mentally. Helps us to be more present in our lives,” he said.

“And also an important part of it, equally important if not more so, is that we also are learning self-acceptance, we’re practicing self-acceptance, as well as how to take care of ourselves best, which may be different from individual to individual.”

Practicing meditation or mindfulness is not a new concept, but has actually been used by the military to help reduce stress and encourage resilience. The VA also has its own mobile app that leads users through mindfulness exercises.

These call-in sessions are meant to supplement professional therapy sessions, not replace them.

There are three parts to each session, Bonk explained, starting with an introduction to mindfulness and then transition to guided exercises, which are similar in each session.

“It’s learning basic breathing exercises as well as basic mindfulness exercises, because we want to encourage people to establish a routine, to develop a practice, something that’s familiar each time,” Bonk said.

The session then moves into a longer experience that changes every week and can vary from between 10 to 20 minutes long.

“We do things like working with the body, body scans. We may have another session working with difficult emotions, we may have one that’s cultivating gratitude and self-acceptance,” he said. “So it’s a combination of something that’s pretty much the same each time and something that’s a little bit different, so you can expand and deepen your skills.”

At the end, the session is then opened up for participants to ask questions or to share.

“And importantly we encourage interaction, so the hope is that there’ll be other veterans on the line who are experiencing similar challenges, may have suggestions, give feedback about the experience, what works and what doesn’t work,” Bonk said.

Mindfulness can also help with chronic pain, said Bonk, by bringing awareness to the body and the pain “rather than turning away from it, rather than medicating it. Going into the body and kind of being present with exactly what’s happening there.”

“It’s kind of like being patient, being compassionate, and also being courageous,” he added about being aware of the pain. “Opening up to what’s going on in the body. And then also some of the techniques that we work with, some of the core techniques like working with the breath, working with the body, directly relates to ways to manage pain, is what again what the science shows.”

How often participates join the call-in sessions is up to them to determine.

“Our hope is that at least for a while that they would join regularly because then you’re developing a skill and we like to think of it as developing your mind muscle. It’s like going to the gym,” he said. “Any kind of exercise, the more that you do it, the more benefits that you’re going to see.”

By joining a phone call session, the program allows veterans anonymity and to access to this support wherever they are located, without having to go anywhere.

And for those who are wary about trying out mindfulness, Bonk said he invites your skepticism.

“I think the skeptical mind can be an important part of the process because then you’re not fooling yourself, you’re not forcing the situation, you’re going to test it,” Bonk said. “So it’s really important to balance a skeptical mind with an open mind.”

“So really, the proof is in the pudding as they say,” he added. “There’s tons of research around it but what it really comes down to is, like, well, try it. See if it’s something that could work for you.”

Connect: @CaitlinMKenney | Caitlin@ConnectingVets.com

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