Rocking chairs fight substance abuse

Jonathan Kaupanger
March 06, 2018 - 11:47 am

Photo by Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS/Sipa USA

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VA is using rocking chairs to fight addiction. Yep, you read that correctly, and the VA recently finished a study on how rocking chairs help veterans self-regulate mood and substance cravings.

“Veterans described the rocking as calming their racing thoughts, giving them peace of mind, relieving stress, relaxing, helping them stay focused, decreasing depression,” said lead researcher Dr. Rene’ Cross. Cross is a nurse practitioner at the Louisville VAMC. The medical center worked with the University of Alabama on this study.

“When a person finds themselves thinking of their substance of addiction cravings, it can lead to relapse,” said Cross. “Being able to self-soothe by rocking in a rocking chair assisted in reducing those thoughts and thus, temptations to relapse.”

Rocking chairs work by stimulating the vestibular system, which is the part of the brain that is associated with mood and emotion. Cross works at Louisville’s Health Care for Homeless Veterans program and thought of the pilot study after seeing veterans relapse after going through the VA’s Homeless Veterans program.

“When some of these veterans circled back through my office, I asked them what they felt contributed to their relapse,” she said. I nearly always got an answer that cravings for their substances made it difficult for them to calm down. This made them feel anxious, and they left the facility to go drink alcohol or use drugs.”

In her four-week study, that took place at a non-VA transitional housing facility in Louisville, participants rocked for at least 30 minutes per day.  Not all of the chairs were the same, so there would be a difference in the size of the rocker bars and the height and shape of the back of the chair. Cross wanted the difference so there wouldn’t be any questions on the style of the chair contributing to the results. 

Participants logged their minutes in the chairs and then documented how they felt. “It was a pleasure just to be able to sit in the chair,” one homeless vet said. “I realized how comforting it was when I would rock in my great grandmother’s rocker,” wrote another vet.

The study concluded with two main results: the longer a person spent in rocking was tied to higher scores on an alcohol craving questionnaire. This suggested that the more intense the urges and desires to drink were, the longer the veteran would rock and self-soothe. The other finding was that an increased amount of rocking time led to a decreased in thoughts and plans to drink.

The original VA study only had 19 participants, Cross would like to start a rocking chair therapy study that includes 100 veterans, both male and female, and with any type of substance abuse. Also in the works, is to use rocking chairs as an additional tool for pain management and possibly a way to fight opioid addiction. 

“I’d be curious, for example, to see as an opioid medication is reduced, if using a rocking chair at any time would help with pain management,” said Cross. “Would it help reduce opioid cravings?”

Cross said that she would like to see the VA start prescribing rocking chairs to veterans. She’d also like them placed in high stress areas at VA facilities, like in emergency rooms as a way to help vets relax.