Trust is a basic human need, but for many military veterans exposed to the horrors of war, it can be hard to rely on other people for strength, emotional support, loyalty and honesty.
For Ulyana Seryankina of Lake Oswego, helping these veterans rebuild trust has become her life's work.
Seryankina, whose family emigrated from Kazakhstan more than a decade ago, has spent the past 10 years working as a medical massage practitioner. Almost three years ago, she started focusing on supporting local veterans in their fight against Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
She is currently a member of two national nonprofit organizations that seek to help improve the lives of veterans through therapy and outreach.
"The first thing that you have to understand is that it's all physiology. Most of these people are undiagnosed," Seryankina says, "and when you've been in a combat zone, you're expected to be this badass person, so to accept that you have PTSD, to accept that you have a problem, is very hard."
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, between 11 percent and 20 percent of former service members from the Vietnam and Iraq wars suffer from PTSD, meaning that more than 500,000 veterans in the U.S. are currently dealing with symptoms that could include everything from disturbing thoughts, feelings or dreams to severe anxiety and depression.
People dealing with PTSD often have persistent feelings of fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame, and they are at an increased risk for suicide. According to Seryankina, muscles have memory, and after a traumatic experience or prolonged stress, the human body will remember that experience no matter how long it's been.
"(When you've served in a combat zone), your brain has produced so much adrenaline that when you're no longer in shock it remains in your system," she says. "Your body doesn't know how to release it, so that's my job. Because many times, these people have trust issues and they cannot be touched."
More than a dozen studies conducted at the University of Miami School of Medicine and elsewhere support Seryankina's contention that massage therapy can relieve depression and anxiety by affecting the body's biochemistry. Researchers found that massage reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which has been associated with feelings of hyper-arousal and danger — by up to 53 percent; bodywork also increased levels of serotonin and dopamine, the neurotransmitters that help ease depression.
For some patients, it takes a while before Seryankina can begin to properly heal them using medical massage. She often starts by using hot stones, an ancient massage technique that requires less bodywork than other methods she uses.
"In the beginning, it's very hard." she says. "I've had two men who, in their first two sessions, we just sat together and I held their hands, and it was huge for them. Sometimes it takes me a session or two to establish trust."
Many of her referrals are by word-of-mouth, but Seryankina also works with a few local psychologists and the nonprofit group "Hands for Heroes," which provides referrals to veterans for medical massage practitioners in their area. She is also an ambassador for Mission 22, a nonprofit that seeks to lower the number of veteran suicides in the U.S. through outreach and inclusion.
On average, approximately 22 U.S. veterans commit suicide each day, according to the Veterans Administration — a number that serves as the inspiration for Mission 22.
Hands for Heroes was started four years ago by William Barry, director of the Phoenix Massage Therapy Schools in Houston, Texas. The group's mission is to create a database of medical massage and therapy practitioners who will work with veterans for free or at a reduced charge. The organization's goal is to reach 1 million massage sessions for veterans across the country; to date, more than 10,000 sessions have been scheduled.
"There are so many disorders (PTSD and otherwise) that went silent in previous wars," Barry says. "These veterans' needs can't be filled by just Wounded Warriors, Hands for Heroes or 10 other organizations. We need all the help we can get, and to help de-stress veterans is so important. Massage is one of the best ways to accomplish that."
Seryankina sees between 80 and 100 people per month in her quiet, home-like studio not far from Waluga Park, and about a fifth of those patients are veterans. Most of the veterans she works with visit once a month for an hour-long session pro bono, she says, but others with means to pay for treatment visit as often as once per week.
Among her patients are a local father and son who served in Vietnam and Iraq, respectively. Seeing the way their condition has progressed individually and as a pair is not only enlightening professionally, Seryankina says, but also satisfying on a personal level.
"The result is amazing. People cry. People talk. It's very easy for people to talk to me because often they're lying face down. We're not eye-to-eye," she says. "Nothing can be more rewarding than when someone gives you a hug and says, 'Work your magic.' That is when I know why I'm doing this."
Seryankina says she sees a void between the care that PTSD patients require and the number of resources available to them. In some cases, it can take several years for PTSD patients to get the counseling they need through their local VA Medical Center, she says.
She hopes that her work can at least help to close the gap between the care her patients need and the services the system offers them. And she says she will continue to provide that care while advocating for improved services for those suffering from PTSD.
Toward that end, Seryankina says, she will be donating $10 of the proceeds from every massage she gives during the month of June to the National Center for PTSD in honor of PTSD Awareness Month and PTSD Awareness Day on June 27. To learn more, go to www.ulyana.messagetherapy.com or call 541-914-7841.
For more information on PTSD, visit www.www.ptsd.va.gov. If you or someone you know is a veteran in desperate need, contact the Veterans' Crisis Line at 800-273-8255.