It’s no secret that exercise plays a powerful role in improving mental wellbeing – it gets the blood pumping, the oxygen flowing and releases vital endorphins that give us that incredible natural ‘high’. But, for people who have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) exercise – combined with other forms of support – can radically change their life.
Photography by Jennifer Brum
So, it makes sense, then, that the team behind Light On PTSD have chosen to get on their bikes for a 24-hour marathon in order to raise awareness of this important issue. From 9am on 23 July to 9am on 24 July, 14 cyclists – each with their own personal experience of PTSD – will ride relay style non-stop around Vancouver’s Stanley Park to help get the message out to a wider audience that PTSD can affect anyone, at any age, from any background, at any time.
PTSD is an intense anxiety disorder brought on by very stressful, frightening or traumatic events and someone with the condition will often relive that event through nightmares and flashbacks. A sufferer will often experience feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt, as well as insomnia and concentration difficulties. Typically, PTSD is associated with war veterans and emergency responders. It was first documented in the First World War, when it was known as ‘shell shock’. The distressing experiences in the trenches had a devastating, long-term impact on the soldiers and their families, but the condition was not formally recognised for another 50 years when, in 1980, it was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, developed by the American Psychiatric Association. Today, it is estimated that around 10% of Canadian soldiers who served in Afghanistan have PTSD.
In fact, PTSD can be triggered by all manner of events, including serious accidents, assault, abuse, terrorist attacks and natural disasters, and it is estimated that one in every three people who go through a traumatic event will experience PTSD.
“It can affect anybody – a child, neighbour, grandparent, or it could be a mum, like me,” says Jennifer Brum, one of Light On PTSD’s founders. “People often don’t realise that the way they are feeling and their symptoms can be directly related to developmental trauma or a past traumatic incident.”
Photo of Alan, Jennifer and husband Paul Brum. Credit: Karl Robathan
Jennifer’s own experience with PTSD occurred after she, her husband Paul and their two children were caught up in a terrifying river rafting accident in Italy, in 2013. Thankfully, everyone survived but it left an indelible mark. “I thought I would feel better as time passed,” Jennifer explains. “I didn’t realise that not speaking about what happened could drag you down deeper. And being a mom added another dimension. I felt certain that I was going to die and, on top of that, I didn’t know whether my family was drowning as well. It’s a mom’s worst nightmare. Afterwards, I felt I had to present as a strong parent because if they knew how I was really feeling it might deepen their sense of fear around the accident and potentially their relationship with water and boats. I was trying to contain my emotions all the time but then they’d go to school and I would just sit and cry. I was experiencing flashbacks and a sense of hopelessness, but I didn’t want to talk about it with anyone. My hands would shake, I began to have chest pains, and at times I felt I couldn’t get a proper breath. I realised it was only getting worse and that I needed to get some help.”
Learning to open up and talk about her experience led Jennifer down a new path to becoming a therapeutic counsellor and she now specialises in helping other mothers who have been through a trauma. It also led to the creation of Light On PTSD with her husband and their friend Allan Kobayashi, a veteran of Kosovo and Afghanistan who was diagnosed with PTSD in 2005.
“I’ve been a volunteer with Wounded Warriors Canada for the past three years,” says Jennifer, “which is how we met Allan. He’s a runner and a cyclist and got talking with my husband about how PTSD isn’t just a military thing. Paul suggested we start something up that supports all sorts of people.”
The trio hit upon a cycling event because, as Jennifer explains, “cycling is so therapeutic. People with PTSD tend to isolate themselves and often don’t want to be around loud noises, crowds, or conversation. Living with PTSD in the home can feel like walking on eggshells. Cycling is a sport that can be done alone, with a friend, or in a group. And the cycling community tends to be really supportive, so it’s an opportunity to share time with another person, regardless of whether you talk about what’s happened or not. There’s the physical aspect to it that can also evoke strong emotions and clear some cobwebs. And, of course, what goes up, must come down. The euphoria of sailing down the hill with the wind in your face feels pretty good compared to sitting inside and alone on a sunny day.”
An increasing number of studies back this up, showing that exercise can be helpful in reducing PTSD symptoms and improving mood. Research at Loughborough University, in the UK, found that surfing can help improve wellbeing and even, in certain instances, avert suicide in veterans coping with PTSD.
But like other forms of anxiety, PTSD is something that an individual lives with every day. “Our event is a 24-hour relay held around the 24th day of the seventh month to depict the 24 hour/seven days a week nature of PTSD,” says Jennifer.This year will be the second time the organisation has run the event and their plans are even bigger and better than 2016. “We’ve had about $40,000 of media coverage this year, which has been amazing,” says Jennifer. “We’re running two free yoga sessions – one in the morning and one in the evening. We also have two hours of live music planned and 529 Garage will be there, which is a bike registration programme run in conjunction with the Vancouver police department. The public can come along and get their bike registered to protect against theft. We’ve also got a fire truck visiting for the kids, so we’re hoping to draw lots of families along. Not to mention the raffle that will be drawn at 5pm. We have some amazing prizes in store, including two free West Jet tickets for anywhere that West Jet flies.”
Proviz is proud to be playing a small role, too, having donated high visibility vests to the team. “The vests are incredible,” says Jennifer. “They just light up, which is perfect for the message that we’re trying to get across. Our goal is to help people step out of the shadow of PTSD and into the light of a rich and fulfilling life, as well as shine a light on the condition more generally.”
The 2017 Light on PTSD cyclist team. Credit: Jennifer Brum
While the core team will relay for the full 24 hours, members of the public are welcome to join in a few laps, although Jennifer stresses that there is no organised public ride. “We had hoped to do that, but due to safety concerns it proved too tricky. But we’d love people to come down, do a lap or two and have a chat.”
It’s clear talking to Jennifer that this event and Light On PTSD’s work more generally means the world to her, as does the core relay team, who she describes as “beautiful people with huge hearts. They have all had very different experiences with PTSD, but each and every one of them would do almost anything to help someone in need. I feel very lucky to know them.”
Visit Light On PTSD's website for more information on the cycling event and if you’re in the area the team would love to have your support. If you are struggling with PTSD we have listed some web pages that may be of use to you depending on your location.
Or for veterans:
“The event this year went very well,” says Jennifer, just a few days after the 24-hour Light on PTSD cycling event was successfully completed by everyone in the team. “We hit our target and donated $10,000 to Honour House.”
The house is a refuge for members of the Canadian Armed Forces, veterans and emergency services personnel and their families. Those in need can stay completely free of charge while they are receiving medical care and treatment in the metro Vancouver area. “One of the highlights was seeing firefighters join forces with the Honour House group to sell raffle tickets and inform people about PTSD,” says Jennifer. “It was interesting to see how many people don’t know what PTSD is which in turn illustrates just how important it is to raise awareness around this often-debilitating disorder.”
Although one or two team members were concerned that they might not be able to complete the 24-hour event, everyone made it through, “with the care and support of others and a lot of determination and perseverance,” Jennifer says. “For some team mates it was a massive stepping stone in their own healing journey. It was truly inspirational and an honour to witness.”
The team’s Proviz gilets went the full distance, too, giving Jen additional peace of mind as an organiser. “Proviz was an incredible gift to Light on PTSD this year – as a key organiser I felt much more comfortable knowing our team would be seen the moment the smallest ray of light struck their vest. It certainly gave me, as well as the team, peace of mind during those long, dark hours in the park. We were also very grateful to have media coverage donated from Global, CKNW, and Rock 101 this year.”
The team is already planning next year’s event and sounds excited about what might be coming. “We are still ironing out some important details, so please stay tuned for our big announcement!”
The reflective capability of our REFLECT360 material helps other road users to identify a runner or cyclist’s position on the road at night.