It is impossible to deny, for me and many fly anglers I know, and perhaps most fly anglers on the planet that fly fishing give you something in your life that nothing else can.
Between the connection with nature, the meditative repetition of casting, the sounds and movements of the water, and lots more, it is an amazing addition to one’s life.
If you follow the world of fly fishing closely, especially on Instagram, you might have heard or seen how fly fishing is being used to help veterans cope with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Amazing organizations such as Project Healing Waters Fly-Fishing (PHWFF), Veteran’s First Fly Fishing Club, Fly’n Heroes, and Rivers of Recovery, have begun changing the lives of veterans through fly fishing and we are here to look out how it works.
Join me as the take an in-depth look at fly fishing for veterans with PTSD, how it can be so helpful, and why.
“It helps you relax, to unwind…it puts you in a better frame of mind…it’s just tranquil.” – Larry, a 68-year-old Army veteran
What Is PTSD?
Before we get into how fly fishing helps veterans with PTSD let’s first make sure that we are all on the same page when it comes to PTSD by discussing exactly what it is.
PTSD as described by the American Psychological Association [APA], 2017 “is an extreme response to a traumatic event that is characterized by a combination of mental health symptoms that are present for at least one month and impair functioning across multiple domains.”
PTSD is mostly associated with veterans who have been through traumatic experiences during combat but anyone can suffer from PTSD after having been through a traumatic event, such as sexual assault.
The symptoms that confirm a diagnosis of PTSD include impaired functioning of the below:
- Intrusion or re-experiencing of a traumatic event
- Alterations in cognition and mood
- Alterations in arousal and reactivity
- Avoidance of trauma-associated stimuli
As you can imagine, managing all these changes to one’s behavior after a traumatic event is extremely difficult and it can lead to some tough consequences in life.
Quite often those with PTSD suffer from things like depression, substance abuse, suicidality, impaired family, social, and occupational functionality, lower quality of life, and lots more health risks too.
Without support and treatment, veterans, or anyone with PTSD, is at a very high risk of having a very low quality of life through continuously suffering through things like psychological distress and worsening functionality in day-to-day life.
I’m sure you can imagine just how hard it is to experience something terrible such as having bombs exploding around you or being sexually assaulted. Managing one’s mind afterward is another story, as one can’t help but relive the experience and feel the side effects that come with it.
“I’m trying to tie a fly and I’m concentrating so much on getting that right that I’m not dwelling on other things. Every aspect of it is about learning new skills, concentration, and it’s all really coming together.” – Roger, a 38-year-old veteran
What Are The Current Treatments For PTSD?
To understand how fly fishing has come to play a role in helping veterans with PTSD we first need to take a look at the current treatments for PTSD.
Generally speaking, the main approaches used to treat PTSD and the preferred methods recommended by the DoD (Department of Defense) are through pharmacological therapy, and individual, trauma, and non-trauma-focused psychotherapies.
Trauma psychotherapy is a method that helps one process the traumatic experience that they lived through and this is done through emotional, behavioral, and cognitive restructuring.
On the other hand, non-trauma-focused therapies use things like interpersonal psychotherapy and present-centered therapy, to help with one’s day-to-day life and to help one stay in the present.
Pharmacological therapy can also be used in conjunction with trauma-focused therapy by using cognitive enhancing medications to help patients have psychological interventions.
How Effective Are These Treatments?
While these therapies are effective, they are not as effective as they need to be as between 30% and 50% of the veterans who go through them do not show long-term improvements and are still diagnosed with PTSD after having done them.
Not only is this an issue, but also, a lot of veterans drop out of these forms of therapies. Having to go through a lot of trauma-focused and related material is a very distressing experience, as while it helps you process the events, you also have to relive them, bringing everything to the surface all the time.
Up to 44% of veterans doing these forms of therapy choose to drop out due to this intensity, which is a very high number, so different approaches needed to be found.
“A lot of people have problems with dwelling on the past. [Fly-fishing] gives me something to do…it keeps me occupied so I’m not thinking about that stuff on a daily basis. It helps relieve stress and it’s peaceful to me.” – Johnny, a 31-year-old who had recently medically separated from his Army unit
What Are The Other Treatment Options?
The main choice when it comes to other ways to treat PTSD are Complementary Integrative Health (CIH) approaches, and a good example of one is nature-based recreation such as outdoor adventure therapy.
CIH, as described by The National Center for Complementary & Integrative Health [NCCIH], 2015, can be “a viable supplemental treatment option, as they leverage individual interests and motivations for sustained and engaged participation.”
Given that the standard treatments for PTSD were not quite effective enough the DoD put its full force behind CIH as it can interrupt the undesirable symptoms of PTSD, and help a lot of veterans and others suffering from it.
At the time, there wasn’t much evidence to show that veterans with PTSD engaging in nature-based recreation would be helped. But through studies, the evidence shows that nature-based approaches are effective and have since become increasingly popular as a form of therapy.
As you can probably see, it is through Complementary Integrative Health (CIH) approaches such as nature-based recreation that fly fishing comes into play in the treatment of PTSD. This ties back to the feelings and impacts fly fishing has on one’s life which I described at the beginning of the article.
How Does Fly Fishing Help With PTSD?
It might be easy for us fly anglers to see how fly fishing would help with PTSD but what is the science behind it all? To understand this we first have to understand the stress and coping.
“Fly-fishing breaks down a lot of barriers, and makes you feel like you’re not alone…it’s a big network and a mentorship. For me, it’s not about fishing at all. I love to catch fish, but I don’t go “to fish” at all, I go to see everybody.” – Owen
What Is Stress And How Do We Cope With It?
The most widely recognized theory of stress and coping is Lazarus and Folkman’s theory of stress coping.
According to Lazarus and Folkman, stress is when one is exposed to an experience that is seen as challenging, harmful, or threatening, basically, anything one experiences that one can’t cope with.
The theory then goes on to explain that coping with and understanding the situation happens at the same time during the experience. This is when emotions are created about the situation and coping strategies for the situation comes into play. This happens through managing one’s emotions or directly addressing the stressful element.
When one experiences PTSD emotions such as avoidance, distancing, denial, and minimizing are common, and so are moments like loud outbursts, crying, and venting.
“Sometimes, it just feels like you have no control over your life like this thing is eating you up from the inside and there’s nothing you can do about it. But then I volunteered to run a tying class. I went from a participant to a volunteer. That makes me look in the mirror and is something I am proud of.” – Laura
How Does Fly Fishing Help With Coping?
Through leisure researchers’ work over the last 30 years, it has come to light that a leisure activity such as fly fishing is a great way for people to cope with stress and improve their well-being.
Leisure activities, like fly fishing, have been shown to help one restore one’s self-value both from events in the past and in a transformative way for the future too.
The act of fly fishing regularly can renew control and stability in one’s life through “reducing, deflecting, and managing emotional distress, and infusing positive emotions into the situation”.
In the case of veterans, it has been shown that fly fishing as a form of leisure can help veterans with PTSD find new directions and meanings in life. So, let’s take a look at some examples of how fly fishing has helped veterans with PTSD and why.
How Effective Has Fly Fishing Been For Veterans With PTSD?
The answer is that fly fishing has been extremely effective in helping veterans with PTSD in several different ways.
The qualitative paper “The Transformative Nature of Fly-Fishing for Veterans and Military Personnel with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” by Patti J. Craig, Dustin M. Alger, Jessie L. Bennett, and Tamar P. Martin describes a study in which nine veterans who were, and maybe still are, participants in the Project Healing Waters Fly-Fishing Program were split into two focus groups and asked about how fly fishing impacted their lives.
The findings of the study were quite incredible and were analyzed into 4 themes of how fly fishing helped the participants with their PTSD. Here are the themes: Fly fishing…
- “Facilitates positive mood and buffers the negative impact of PTSD”
- “Sustains coping effort and commitment by generating motivation and providing challenge”
- “Facilitates healing by restoring control, fostering connections, and creating hope for the future”
- “Helps move participants toward personal transformation and posttraumatic growth”
Let’s take a look at what the participating veterans said about their experience of fly fishing and how it helped them with their PTSD.
Real-Life Effects Of Fly Fishing On PTSD
“It’s hard to explain to people the tranquility of just being on a stream. It doesn’t matter if I’m fishing, or just trying to see what kind of bugs are on the water; it’s just that feeling of peace and quiet.” – Mack, a 42-year-old active duty soldier
I’m sure we have all felt this while fly fishing and it makes a lot of sense in helping veterans with PTSD have a better mood and cope with the issues that come with PTSD. The same goes for the quote below.
“It definitely helps me with my anxiety; just casting, alone in itself. And, just knowing, I’ve got to get better, I’ve got to go further…it’s a soothing thing, it helps you just calm down within because you don’t have to rush it.” – Yvette, a 49-year-old Army veteran
Yvette is describing, what I think, is the meditative side of casting that removes you from your world and lets you reflect on it. It also describes how it helps move people forward as they are trying to improve but in an unstressful way.
“I close my eyes and just remember the tranquility, the sound of the river, the light shining, and the fish fighting. When I’m in a place where I just want to smash everything, and I can’t breathe, I just think of that and can hear the river again, it calms me down. The sounds of nature will calm you down, but I didn’t know that, because most of the time when I saw nature, we were blowing it up. But now it’s a whole different ball game.” – Owen, a 28-year-old Army veteran
Owen’s story is incredible and it shows the power that nature and connecting with it can give you, to the point that it can pull him out of his hard times and bring him peace and tranquility just through memory.
“The stress immediately melts when you’re casting. It’s taught me a great deal. If I get uptight, I’ll start tying flies at home, just like it’s medication. It’s my vice, my medication. I don’t care if I even catch any fish.” “ I take the maximum dose of medications you can take. But nothing calms me down more than tying something. I get these reactions where I start throwing up, I get dizzy, I just want to smash things, or just want to lay down and sleep the rest of my life. But instead of popping a pill, I’ll tie a copper john.” – Brent, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran
The fact that for Brent tying flies and casting has a bigger effect on his mind and body than medication is simply mind-blowing.
“When I first got back from Iraq, I didn’t have any patience at all, my concentration wasn’t there…I couldn’t tie a fly. Now, with fly-fishing, I’m probably more patient than I have been in a long time. – Elliott, a 44-year-old Army veteran
Thanks for reading my article. I hope you enjoyed it and discovered just how amazing fly fishing is, especially in its assistance for veterans with PTSD. It does provide peace, improves moods, helps with coping, provides challenges, and pushes personal transformation and growth while providing a shared experience.
The work done by Project Healing Waters Fly-Fishing is nothing short of incredible as they continue to change the lives of veterans through the magic of fly fishing and its community.