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Vital Signs with Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Methods for Dealing with Stress and PTSD Examined. Aired 2:30- 3p ET

Aired January 09, 2016 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:00] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Fredricka Whitfield. Much more in the Newsroom continues in 30 minutes. I'll see you tomorrow.

"Vital Signs" with Dr. Sanjay Gupta starts right now.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT AND HOST: Hard to believe, but 2015 is coming to a close. The holidays are a time for family and friends, and also for a lot of people a time for stress. This is "Vital Signs." I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

You know the feeling. Your heart starts to pound, you might start to sweat. The fight or flight response is kicking in. It's a safety mechanism for our bodies when we feel threatened or in danger. John Thurman felt that way on September 11, 2001. He survived the terrorist attack on the Pentagon but the trauma stayed with him. John found a way to manage his post-traumatic stress disorder and is now helping others do the same.

JOHN THURMAN, U.S. ARMY VETERAN: Exhale, go forward, inhale, reach your arms and gaze up to the ceiling, stand, inhaling --

GUPTA: This looks like your typical yoga class, students focusing on their practice, the teacher providing instruction. But this isn't just any class and John Thurman isn't just any instructor. Welcome to noon yoga at the Pentagon.

THURMAN: Your lips sealed spreading energy throughout --

It was in the family. There's a long history of my father, my grandfather, and my uncle and other people being in the army.

GUPTA: A graduate of West Point, the United States military academy, John served in the army, first in Germany during the cold war, then in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. After nearly a decade in the field, John was stationed at the Pentagon in Washington D.C.

THURMAN: You come in and turn on your computer, go to meetings, coordinating, working on projects. I would never have guessed that something would happen there.

GUPTA: On September 11th, 2001, John went to work like any other normal day. At 9:37 a.m. a hijacked passenger plane struck the western side of the Pentagon as a terrorist attack against the United States. John's office was located on the second floor, right above where the plane hit the building.

THURMAN: First it felt like a bomb, then it felt like an earthquake. Because we were in this small room, no windows, we were plunged into pitch darkness. I tried to get so some of my colleagues in the room. We were at that point having to crawl on the floor. And be. things now full of hot smoke and very hot air. You took your face off the floor and you couldn't breathe. It was singing the back of your throat.

CUOMO: John was treated for severe smoke inhalation. He spent a week in the hospital, returning to work two weeks later. He was heeling physically, but not mentally.

THURMAN: So certainly signs of PTSD very early. Terrible trouble sleeping. The doctors that I was seeing were prescribing drugs to help me sleep and prescribing drugs to help stay calm, and they weren't working. First time I was back in the building I could still smell that kerosene smell, which was unnerving. And so it's interesting how different sensory kind of things play.

KATHLEEN HALL, CEO, THE STRESS INSTITUTE: Our stress is also mitigated by our five senses. That's why we have the five senses. They are the stoplight, the traffic light on how we take in information on every level.

GUPTA: Kathleen Hall is the founder and CEO of the Stress Institute. After years of working on Wall Street, she left the corporate world to focus on stress.

You lived the Wall Street life. It seems to me, but stress was a badge of honor sometimes. If you were more stressed you were working harder, you were striving more, you were more ambitious. It became equated with success. Is that where stress really started to become more common, or how did we get to this place?

[14:35:00] HALL: I agree with you. We all grew up where my father worked 20 hours a day and we never could ask him questions or do anything, because, I love what you just said. It was a badge of honor.

The father of stress, of course, is Hans Selye, which would be back in 1936, and he was the one who first started studying it. And when we talk about definitions of stress, his was it's just our reaction to change basically. And it's a healthy, good thing. For example, if you and I didn't react to change, we wouldn't be alive right now because that's the way our bodies are made. But we made stress into this, it's really a neutral word, but we've made it into this negative world.

GUPTA: For John Thurman, the stress and trauma of the attacks stayed with him long after the event. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. PTSD can occur when the brain's natural fight or flight response becomes damaged or changed after trauma. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, depression. For John, the weeks and months after 9/11 were a struggle, especially at night. THURMAN: I was thrashing around. I was crawling out of my bed in my

sleep, reliving the event. And then it just plays throughout. You feel like there's a wet blanket over you.

GUPTA: Out of the 125 people killed inside the Pentagon that day, 26 them worked on John's team. Along with the PTSD, he says, survivors guilt weighed heavily on his mind.

THURMAN: You have the physical and the mental recovery, so as you become more physically resilient, you're able to maybe mask things a little bit. One of the doctors said you West Pointers are very good at putting things in boxes and then putting that box on the shelf. So PTSD can be something a bit of a time bomb waiting to go off.

GUPTA: John had survived the attack, but his fight was just beginning. A suggestion from a friend would introduce John to an age- old practice that would change everything for him.


[14:40:32] GUPTA: It's just before the holidays, and New York Grand Central Station is bustling. You could say that for most people this is one of the most stressful places in one of the most stressful cities. Or you could choose to view it another way.

KELLY MCGONIGAL, AUTHOR, "THE UPSIDE OF STRESS": Sometimes you might be someplace like this where it feels like frantic energy because everyone is trying to get someplace that they care about. And one of the things I'm really interested in is how do we find a way to accept and embrace that energy. My definition of stress is what happens in your brain and in your body that helps you rise to the challenge when something that you care about the on the line.

GUPTA: Kelly McGonical is a psychologist and the author of a book called "The Upside of Stress." Her work has flipped the script on stress.

MCGONIGAL: Everyone's heard of the fight or flight response. It's one way your body and brain responds to stress. But actually you have this whole repertoire of different stress responses. Fight or flight, that's something when we feel really threatened, maybe overwhelmed, and you go in the mode of immediate survival. But you can also have a stress response called a challenge response. And that's the kind of stress that gives you courage and makes you willing to take positive risks and really helps you perform under pressure. And it's a healthy stress response. It's good for your cardiovascular system. It's good for your immune system.

You can also have what psychologist call a tend to be friend response, which is a stress response that makes you want to connect with others, that makes you better able to connect with others, and it's one of the reasons we know stress can strengthen relationships because stress can drive us to connect and to care. And when we do that, that's also good for our health.

LENNON FLOWERS, CO-FOUNDER, THE DINNER PARTY: Are you all done with the peppers were a moment?


FLOWERS: Can I set them somewhere else?

GUPTA: Connecting with others is the idea mind an organization called the Dinner Party.

FLOWERS: That will be pretty, I promise.

GUPTA: In Washington D.C. Lennon Flowers and Cal Dietrich are busy in the kitchen. The topic of conversation at these parties is typically taboo, but that's exactly the point.

FLOWERS: It's really nice to meet you.

GUPTA: Each of the guests are connected by a shared experience of loss. Lennon is one of the cofounders of the Dinner Party. She lost her mom to lung cancer eight year ago.

FLOWERS: I think the mark of any dinner party is not necessarily did people cry and was that real, or did people laugh and was that real, but you should see laughter and you should see tears. It's where people have a level of self-permission to show up with whatever is servicing for them.

GUPTA: Kyle lost his mother two years ago to lymphoma. He's hosting the dinner tonight. In total, Lennon says there are 102 Dinner Party tables around the world and counting.

MCGONIGAL: Dinner Party is an organization born out of the sense of isolation, of being alone in loss or suffering. And I think this is such a perfect example of what it means to embrace stress. They're not saying there's anything good about the death of their loved ones. That would be a ridiculous statement. What they're saying is they believe that it's possible to create something good when they choose to acknowledge the reality of the stress and the suffering and to harness our natural human capacity to let stress or suffering become a catalyst for social connections, strengthen communities.

GUPTA: Word of this table spread through friends and friends of friends. The group focuses on young adults in their 20s and 30s who are used to giving a standard reaction when the topic of death comes up in conversation.

FLOWERS: The reaction I've always found was the deer in the headlights effect. For me, personally, it had been about three years when we set down for our first dinner party since my mom died. And in all of that time I became really good at avoiding that topic because I wanted to avoid making somebody else uncomfortable with that story.

GUPTA: This table has been meeting now for a year and a half, and the connections here are obvious. Each guest at the table shares a bit of their stories.

ARIANA SARAR: My dad died on December 18th of last year. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's my birthday.

[14:45:04] SARAR: Yes. So short of a year, but he had a heart attack suddenly and didn't expect it.

DREW BENNETT: Drew and my father died after a stroke, a sudden stroke a little over two years ago.

GUPTA: Nearly everyone around the table lost a parent as a young adult. Alex lost his mom to a long battle with breast cancer a year ago. Rachel's father passed away from early onset Alzheimer's. And Jessa lost her dad in a motorcycle accident on her way to work one day. Sarah lost her sister to a heroin overdose.

SARAH MCLAUGHLIN: It's kind of interesting seeing where everyone's stories fit in at the table, because she was kind of a strange mix. She had been an addict since she was 12, and so it was like a slow loss where it is hard to have hope when someone's deep in that kind of addiction. We were really close, which is great, and I'm really happy for that.

JESSA BOEHNER: So I went to college and I found out about the Dinner Party, which is great. Actually the first time I came was the one month of my dad passing away. We had the last one on his birthday. It's been great to have this space where it's totally everyone understands that grief is not a linear process, and whatever you need to say to feel totally comfortable, if you need to just cry or joke about it, so it's been kind of a great thing.

KATHERINE CONWAY: I think it's good to be able to say here's how I want to be. I want people to interact with me right now in this hard moment. I have friends that say is this a hard moment where you want me to be there all the time.


GUPTA: Of course, this group wishes they had come together under different circumstances. But they can't change the past. Instead, they celebrate the lives of those they lost together. That's what keeps them coming back every month.

FLOWERS: I feel like when you're in a space with other people who have an experience, and if it ever comes up that becomes the defining thing. And it's nice to be in a place where it can come up and go away and then come back up and just say whatever you need to say.

GUPTA: Letting go was what John Thurman was trying to do. He lost 26 of his colleagues in the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001. A survivor of the attack, he was suffering from PTSD. Next, what John found to help him, and what we can all do to manage stress in our own minds.


[14:51:16] GUPTA: In ways you might not even realize, stress is impacting your body and your health. Stress can cause headaches, muscle tension, anxiety, chest pain, fatigue. It can impact your mood and behavior like overeating or excess alcohol consumption. High levels of stress for prolonged periods of time is also linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. Look, we can't avoid stress, but we can manage it. Kathleen Hall has some healthy practices we can all incorporate into our daily lives.

HALL: If you learn one thing in life, everything you have is right where you are. Find things that bring you home to yourself. For example, this is a picture of us, the four of us on the stairs. So the minute no matter what I'm doing, if I'm thinking about money or a contract that didn't come in, I can go to that and smile and know what's important.

Then a lot of people, whether you're working at home, working at work, this is an organic lavender eye mask, and a lot of my clients who are CEOs and run companies have these in their top drawer in a zip lock bag. So what they'll do is close the door for five minutes, put this over their eyes, which keeps is dark for a moment. You smell the organic lavender. We have great studies that show it lowers your blood pressure, lowers your heart rate. It immediately calms the body and mind and soul.

This is big. Please start your family up with mindfulness in talking about stress. You can put your family picture, have your children choose their favorite picture. Not you. This is called the concern box. You keep this in your family room. And this has paper in it right here, and this has got a pencil. During the busy week, and everybody is busy, teach your children and yourself that you write down what you're worried about.

GUPTA: For John Thurman who survived the attack on 9/11 and was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, it would be yoga that would change everything for him.

THURMAN: I had doubts, but I was willing to try anything. Taking drugs to sleep, taking drugs to everything, like I said, it felt very wet blanket.

GUPTA: Yoga is scientifically proven to help reduce stress. For John the biggest benefit was a reduction in what he calls the mind chatter he was experiencing with PTSD. For the first time in a long time he felt relaxed.

THURMAN: I think it's successful in the PTSD because it helps you achieve mental sharpness and focus. That combined with the ability to work with your breathing exercises, and then eventually you're headed towards meditation. And so it's that meditation and that mental stillness that was able to really help find the benefits that I was looking for.

Let's come to a nice easy seated position sitting up tall, spines long.

GUPTA: John benefitted from yoga so much he took a teacher training class to deepen his understanding.

THURMAN: Inhale and exhaling. GUPTA: Eventually, John decided to pursue yoga full time. In 2013 he

left the army.

THURMAN: For me, as a teacher, what is it I want to do with your yoga. For me it was two-fold. One was to bring yoga to men in general. The other one was to specifically bring it to service members and to veterans.

GUPTA: Now he teaches a weekly yoga class at the Pentagon, the very place that started this entire journey for him.

[14:55:00] THURMAN: I have anywhere from 40 to 50 people that come every Thursday at noon, which I think is a big statement, because when you look at someone whose working at the Pentagon to give you an hour of their time, and I think that is a big statement in and itself.

GUPTA: John says his class is a mix of active and retired military as well as civilians. The V.A. estimates as many as 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from PTSD. So in a move to cut down a prescription pain medication, the U.S. Veterans Health Administration has started incorporating yoga into alternative therapy programs to treat PTSD. It worked for John.

THURMAN: I'm excited about it. I think one of the things out of 9/11 and the fact that I have been able to become resilient and recover and live my life is that I have responsibility to do that for the people that lost their lives on that day, that you have a responsibility to live and to be well.

GUPTA: And it's a responsibility John reminds us we all share in common. As the New Year kicks off, you should try to make Kelly McGonical's mindset reset on stress one of your resolutions. Stress is a sign of a meaningful life, so let's start living it that way.

For "Vital Signs" I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta wishing you a happy and healthy 2016.