Q&A With Lynn Stoller: Sensory Strategies for PTSD

Stephanie Yamkovenko

Airforce Paying respect

When Lynn Stoller, MS, OTR/L, RYT, heard from a yoga instructor that combat veterans in her yoga class were experiencing sensory symptoms, Stoller was curious to learn more about their issues. Stoller gave the veterans the Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile and began assisting the yoga class during breaks from her school-based occupational therapy job. "It was the heartbreaking personal stories of the veterans themselves that have continued to fuel my passion for the work and my desire to study sensory-based treatments for Combat and Operational Stress Reaction (COSR) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)," says Stoller.

Stoller will be presenting on sensory-based strategies for treating PTSD symptoms at the AOTA Advanced Practice in Traumatic Injuries & PTSD Specialty Conference. Stoller's work aims to help clients with COSR or PTSD recover, compensate, or adapt so they can reengage in necessary daily life activities. 

AOTA talked to Stoller about PTSD myths, why it affects more than just veterans, and how occupational therapy practitioners can prepare themselves to work with PTSD.

AOTA: Have you noticed any misconceptions or myths about PTSD in the media?
Stoller: It seems that PTSD is more likely to come to the forefront in response to a violent act that someone has committed. Oftentimes, PTSD is immediately suspected even in the absence of an established diagnosis. The "ticking time bomb" myth is very stigmatizing to those who have PTSD and can hinder the sufferer's willingness to seek help. Another myth is that PTSD is a sign of innate emotional weakness or something that is more likely to occur in someone who is "unbalanced" or on the fringes of society. I have befriended many combat veterans who are extremely bright, highly accomplished, and very compassionate—yet were felled over time by the symptoms of PTSD. PTSD is a serious neurobiologically based condition that can occur in anyone who has experienced extreme trauma.

AOTA: For occupational therapy practitioners who are not working with Veterans Affairs (VA) or the army, why should they be interested in PTSD and sensory-based strategies?
Stoller: OTs can play a pioneering role in creating treatment programs for veterans in community settings outside of the VA or army. According to the National Center for PTSD, the vast majority of veterans and military retirees who seek treatment for their symptoms do so outside of the VA system, so the topic is as relevant for OTs and OTAs working in community settings as it is for those who work in the VA. Furthermore, PTSD is a condition that can occur in response to any type of severe emotional or physical trauma, not only war. Occupational therapy practitioners who work with children are almost certainly treating some who have been traumatized at some point in their lives by emotional or physical neglect or abuse, or physical trauma such as accidents, multiple surgeries, and so on.

The lifetime prevalence of PTSD in the general adult population is estimated to be 6.8%—OTs working with the general population are bound to be working with those who have PTSD whether they realize it or not. Sensory-based strategies have been found to be very effective in treating PTSD symptoms in both the pediatric and adult populations, and are designed to treat the underlying symptoms causing occupational dysfunction.

AOTA: What would you tell members who may be unsure about whether they should attend the specialty conference?
Stoller: The trek will be well worth it! You will undoubtedly learn a lot, and that can help to re-energize your own work. I also hear that San Antonio is fabulous!

AOTA: In addition to attending your session at the specialty conference, how can occupational therapy practitioners prepare themselves for working with clients with PTSD?
Stoller: It is very helpful to obtain special training in how to work with those who have experienced trauma to effectively recognize and treat the disorder, and to ensure that their treatment is trauma-sensitive. There are several programs available nationwide that provide advanced training in this area. Warriors at Ease in Bethesda, Maryland, provides training for OTs, OTAs, and other health professionals in sensory-enhanced yoga techniques for self-regulation and trauma healing. Other programs include: There & Back Again in Charlestown, MA; Exalted Warriors in Tampa, FL; and the Trauma Center at JRI in Brookline, MA. Tina Champagne, through the CHD's Institute for Dynamic Living in Springfield, MA provides excellent training to OTs and other professionals working in inpatient and outpatient psychiatric settings both locally and throughout the country and internationally. The annual Psychological Trauma Conference but on by JRI in Boston provides a plethora of information on the topic and is also highly recommended.

Stephanie Yamkovenko is AOTA's staff writer.