Healing Trauma

Coming home can be harder than going to war…or to work.

The Need is Great

Operational stress injuries (OSIs), such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, are a growing problem for veterans, reservists and active-service members of the military, especially in Canada. The costs associated with developing and providing meaningful and effective treatments for people living with OSIs are also rising, and are putting greater stress on contracting military and veteran-related budgets. The need is also great, and has yet to be properly addressed or funded, in the first responder communities: amongst brave and dedicated police officers, fire fighters, paramedics and front line healthcare workers.

At a conference I attended on PTSD called Veterans, Trauma and Treatment, held in October 2013 at the Omega Institute in New York state, we were told that it is now estimated that it will cost the US Veterans Administration (the largest health care provider in America) $1.4 million in treatment costs and medication for each veteran or active member of the military who has PTSD, over the course of his or her lifetime. There are over 500,000 surviving veterans of the war in Vietnam who have PTSD, and at least another 500,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (approximately 25% of those who served overseas) have or are expected to develop PTSD. This represents a projected cost to the US government of over 1 trillion dollars.

In Canada the situation is similar, although the numbers are different. According to Dr. Alain Brunet, President of the Trauma Division, Canadian Psychological Association, “It is currently estimated that 15-30 percent of returning soldiers will develop PTSD.” That translates into 4,000 – 6,000 active duty soldiers, reservists and veterans who will need support and services. If it costs a similar amount to treat veterans in Canada, using the old methods currently in place, the costs of not providing effective treatment to them will be staggering to the Canadian taxpayer – between 5.6 and 8.4 billion dollars. And the longer we wait to provide effective treatments, and the longer our warriors and their families will suffer, the longer it will take for them to return to being active and productive members of our society.

Using the Arts to Help People Recover from Trauma

In the United States, where OSIs are more prevalent, there is a growing trend towards providing community-focused, arts-based health and wellness workshops, as a form of complementary alternative therapies, as well as a growing body of research, that demonstrate the benefits of these workshops.
Unfortunately we are not as up to date, here in Canada, on what works. Tragically, as far  as I’ve been able to determine, there are currently no opportunities for active-service personnel, veterans and reservists to access these kinds of workshops on a national level through the Canadian Forces or the Ministry of Veterans Affairs. Most of those who are brave enough to ask for help, despite the deep stigma attached to OSIs and the fear that they are risking their careers, are offered psychiatry and medications. Some of those can access talk therapy, but not everyone is able is comfortable to share their experiences verbally. Many, sadly, do not feel comfortable enough to seek out the treatment options that are available, and some chose to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.
The arts can provide another opportunity for people who have experienced trauma to express their feelings in a safe, and non-judgemental atmosphere. The research into PTSD indicates that it is very important for people to find a comfortable way to begin to share their stories, but not just with other trauma survivors. It can be even more healing when those stories, or the works of art that are created to tell those stories, are shared with the general public. Educating civilians about the sacrifices our proud men and women in uniform have made, helps not just to validate their experiences, but can also transform their personal agony into an opportunity to educate others.
Members of the military have a strong bond to each other, like a tribe, if you will, that comes from living, training, fighting and even grieving together when their friends are killed or commit suicide. But when they develop problems from OSIs and can no longer function properly, they are removed from their units, and expected to heal on their own, without the support of their peers.
It has been well documented that when you give people the opportunity to heal in community, and create a space that allows individuals to provide support, encouragement and share their experiences with each other, it can be very healing in itself.

How Can Group Drumming Help?

The research and experience of other drum circle and HealthRHYTHMS facilitators has shown that there are significant social and psychological, mental and physical health benefits to therapeutic group hand drumming workshops. 


  1. SELF EXPRESSION: Drumming can provide a voice for expressing emotions which some people have difficulty expressing with words. Anger, rage and sadness can be safely expressed, and released, through the drum, and encourage further self-expression, which can become a catalyst for positive interaction with friends, fellow veterans and family members.
  2. EMPOWERMENT: Group drumming workshops can help build self-esteem & confidence, improve concentration and focus, calm apprehension and fear, and lower hyper-vigilance. Drumming games and activities enable participants to practice ways of changing or controlling behaviour, and encourage the modulation and control of emotions. Most importantly, participants help each other to express themselves, and they use their knowledge and experience to help each other to heal. All of these benefit help increase feelings of control and empowerment.
  3. CAMARADERIE: Drum circles are naturally inclusive and democratic: everyone is equal in the circle. For men and women who train together, deploy together, and fight and suffer together in war, they are forced to suffer alone when they develop problems caused by operational stress injuries. When they come into a drum circle, they are able to reconnect with each other, to socialize and communicate better, to bond as a group, and to rediscover the community and camaraderie they’ve been missing on their healing journeys.
  4. HEALTH BENEFITS: The HealthRHYTHMS Group Empowerment Protocol is an evidence-based and fun way to reduce and relieve pain and lessen muscle tension. It involves cardiovascular exercise that has been shown to improve circulation, increase energy and enhance sleep patterns. Most importantly, it has been proven to significantly relieve stress and anxiety, improve immune function, and also to diminish depression.

In an article called “Healing for Veterans: One Beat at a Time,” Christine Stevens, MSW, MT-BC, the co-founder of the HealthRHYTMS Group Empowerment Protocol, quotes Mr. Sadhu Khalsa, MSW, founder of the Healing the Warrior Program in New Mexico: “true lasting healing must include the body, mind and spirit.” The statistics he cites are alarming: approximately 30% of the active-duty veterans returning from Iraq, and almost 80% of the National Guard, have developed PTSD. Khalsa says “there are 26 million veterans in the United States from all wars. Medicine today focuses primarily on symptom abatement. But we need to get to the core and address the spiritual aspects of the healing process.” Ms. Stevens says “tapping into all areas of mind, body and spirit, drumming can play a key role in an integrative program within a patient – centered approach to recovery, healing and wellness.”
Ms. Stevens cites the work of other drum circle facilitators who work with veterans, such as Susan Hall, founder of Rhythm Works, in San Diego, who says “The drum circle created a new found willingness and desire to converse and socialize. The veterans shared their personal stories and thanked us.”

The Research on Drumming & PTSD

“…drumming techniques help clients with post-traumatic stress disorder… clients have opportunities to experience success and connect with others and share experiences on a nonverbal level, which may be less threatening… .” 

~ Peters, Jacqueline Schmidt. Music Therapy: An Introduction. Second Edition. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, LTD., 2000.

Dr. John Burt, PhD, MT, published the first research paper on group drumming with veterans, in Music Therapy Perspectives, in 1995. In his workshops, they discovered that improvising on hand drums helped veterans to “modulate their often misdirected, exaggerated, and unrecognized emotions.” These soldiers, who had served in Vietnam, had learned to suppress emotions as a survival skill: “If they showed fear, they’d die; if they showed anger, they’d live to the next day.” Upon returning home, where the war was deeply unpopular, many lived with “anger, rage, contempt and bitterness.”
Through the drum, veterans found a safe way to express that rage: “Give a man a drum and you will see his need to hit it. He may treat it as an extension of himself, another voice that can communicate, call out, and be an instrument to make himself heard. We all want to be heard, and if you have a drum, you can make sure that you are heard.”
Dr. Burt’s goal was to “have the Vet take ownership and control of the drum as he wishes to take control of himself. In modulating the muscles that are necessary to play the drum, the men learn to modulate emotional tension.” First the rage needed to be expressed, tolerated and heard. That enabled the underlying feelings, like sadness and guilt, to be reached, and expressed. Dr.

Burt discovered that “after the rage and the sadness have been explored, there comes a sense of joy, of celebration, of perhaps triumph over adversity, a victory that had been sorely missed. Once individual needs for expression have been satisfied, the tribe forms, roles become clear, and a support network emerges.”

~ Burt, John Ph.D, MCAT, RMT-BC. “Distant Thunder: Drumming with Vietnam Veterans.” Music Therapy Perspectives 133 (1995): 110-112.

In a study published in The Arts in Psychotherapy in 2008 by Bensimon, Amir and Wolf, nine soldiers from the Israeli Defence Force participated in sixteen 90-minute hand drumming workshops, to see if rhythm could help them with the “combat related terror,” or PTSD, that they were suffering from. The sessions were videotaped, the participants were interviewed in-depth by researchers, and their therapists provided their input as well. What they found was that group cohesion improved, and the participants felt more comfortable sharing their trauma stories, and they felt safer expressing their rage appropriately on the drum, which led to a prolonged period and experience of relief. When they experimented with changing the rhythms, the volume, and the tempo, and played different percussion instruments, they felt they regained greater control over their emotions. Drumming helped them to come together as a group, and to access their traumatic experiences in a non-intimidating way. This kind of research is very limited at this point, and the sample sizes have been small. But because the results were both “exciting but rare,” and the use of rhythm was found to be “effective and complementary” in treating PTSD, further research should be conducted with larger sample sizes. These days, there is no shortage of people in Canada, from the Canadian Forces, first responders, and the civilian population (as well as their friends and families), who are still suffering from having experienced trauma.

Source: Bensimon, M., Amir, D. & Wolf, Y. “Drumming through trauma: Music therapy with post-traumatic soldiers.” Science Direct Journal, The Arts in Psychotherapy. Volume 35, Issue 1, 2008, Pages 34-48

Resources: Important Books

Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body; by Peter A. Levine, Ph. D.; © 2005. Published by Sounds True. From the back cover: “Researchers have shown that survivors of accidents, disasters, and childhood trauma often endure lifelong symptoms ranging from anxiety and depression to unexplained physical pain, fatigue, illness, and harmful “acting out” behaviours. Today, professionals and clients in both the bodywork and the psychotherapeutic fields nationwide are turning to Peter A. Levine’s breakthrough Somatic Experiencing® methods to effectively overcome these challenges. In Healing Trauma, Dr. Levine give you the personal how-to guide for using the theory he first introduced in his highly acclaimed work Waking the Tiger. Join him to discover: how to develop body awareness to “renegotiate” and heal traumas by “revisiting” them rather than relieving them; emergency “first aid” measures for times of distress; and nature’s lessons for uncovering the physiological roots of your emotions.” “Trauma is a fact of life,” teaches Peter Levine, “but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.” Now, with one fully integrated self-healing tool, he shares his essential methods to address unexplained symptoms of trauma at their source – the body – to return us to the natural state in which we are meant to live.

The Power of Trauma: Conquering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; by Ute Lawrence; © 2009. Published by iUniverse, Inc. From the back cover: “On September 3, 1999, Ute Lawrence was involved in a horrific eighty-seven-car highway pileup, the worst in Canadian history, that saw eight people killed. In The Power of Truama, she draws on her mind-altering experience to develop a profound new perspective on life that has actually empowered her. Lawrence was nearly stopped in her tracks after staring death in the face, and her lengthy and successful career as a magazine publisher soon ended as she battled the haunting memories of that tragic day. Her intense struggle with post traumatic stress disorder and the lack of helpful and compassionate guidance and information inspired Lawrence to share her experience, and her powerful healing, with others. In this candid and illuminating guide, Lawrence details the symptoms of the disorder, the therapies and programs that eventually led her to a more balanced and fulfilling life, and interviews with the professionals who aided her along her journey from a paralyzing experience to a pilgrimage of self-discovery. The Power of Trauma will help those who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder to better understand and accept their symptoms. Trauma doesn’t have to be a life sentence. This guide will help you take steps to heal and positively transform yourself.”

War & The Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; by Edward Tick, Ph. D.; © 2005. Published by Quest Books. From the back cover: “Post-traumatic stress disorder increasingly afflicts veterans of modern warfare. The New England Journal of Medicine (July 2005) reports that it affects almost 20 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq. Tragically, PTSD impacts all aspects of life. Some vets can’t hold jobs or sustain relationships. Others have recurrent nightmares or won’t leave home, feeling they may attack “the enemy” seen in the faces of those they meet. To begin healing, says Edward Tick, we must see PTSD as a disorder of identity itself. War’s violence can cause the very soul to flee and be lost for life. Drawing on history, mythology, and thirty years of experience, Dr. Tick reveals the universal dimensions of veterans’ soul wounding. He uses methods from ancient Greek, Native American, Vietnamese and other traditions to restore the soul so that the veteran can, at last, truly return home. His work is invaluable for veterans of any war as well as for their families and all who would help them.”

Warrior Rising: A Soldier’s Journey to PTSD and Back; by LCol Chris Linford; © 2012. Published by Friesen Press. From the back cover: “Warrior Rising is a very personal and inspirational story of LCol Chris Linford’s road to a diagnosis of PTSD after three operational deployments to the Gulf War, Rwanda, and Kandahar, Afghanistan. He recounts his associated war stories, but it was the traumas that impacted him so dramatically, leading him to what he describes as the very edge of his personal and professional competence. Finally years later and after months of effective treatment he discovered new ways to improve his health further and has since become involved in peer counselling and ongoing support to veterans who need assistance. LCol Linford remains disappointed that PTSD is still being kept in the shadows, worsening the stigma surrounding it; it’s time to talk about the 800 pound elephant in the room! LCol Linford, through this book, addresses that elephant.”

How to Extend the Benefits of the Community Drum Circles to Specific Population Groups: A Brief Compendium, Edited by Simon Faulkner, Rhythm 2 Recovery © 2018. The Positive Outcomes of Drumming with Veterans:

“Veterans thrive in a safe, bonded, task-oriented group focused on a goal-directed mission. The drum circle creates a therapeutically rich environment that invites connection while meeting a goal. Each week the level of trust deepens and the level of honesty expands. The veteran has the ability to voice thoughts and struggles with like-minded individuals that share a common culture and style of interpersonal interactions. The shared “mission” of creating music together provides an opportunity for leadership, commitment to the team, loyalty and perseverance – All values of the veteran population. Because sharing feelings is not an easy task for a veteran, the use of the drum to convey emotions is especially helpful to the group members – the drum is their emotional voice. Often for the first time in civilian life, the veterans experience a place of “belonging” which has been greatly missed once they leave active duty.”

~ Terrie King, OTR, LPC, Rhythm 2 Recovery Facilitator

Rhythm To Recovery: A Practical Guide to Using Rhythmic Music, Voice and Movement for Social and Emotional Development, by Simon Faulkner, © 2017. Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Simon Faulkner is the founding Director of ‘Rhythm2Recovery’, which specialises in delivering evidencebased rhythmic interventions for the health and education sectors. In 2005 Simon was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study rhythmbased interventions across North America. He authored the multiawardwinning DRUMBEAT program and therapeutic computer game DRUMBEAT Quest, and has contributed to numerous research articles and book chapters on rhythmbased therapies. A practicing counsellor, specialising in group work, Simon worked for fifteen years in a specialised drug and alcohol treatment facility as well as with youth in schools and behavioural centres, trauma centres, refugee services for adults and children, juvenile detention centres and prisons, and both inpatient and outpatient mental health services. He has also worked closely with Aboriginal people in communities across Australia and North America to develop culturally appropriate programs using rhythmic music. Simon delivers professional training, conference presentations and workshops internationally, and continues to do sessional work. He is a married father of three young men and a passionate advocate for the rights of young people.

For information on accredited Rhythm2Recovery training programs visit www.rhythm2recovery.com