An IDF soldier from the Golani Brigade trains in northern Israel.
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
Computerized attention training developed by Tel Aviv University researchers and the Israel Defense Forces Medical Corps reduced to a third the risk of battleground soldiers developing post-trauma stress disorder. Based on the technique’s efficacy, proven with veterans of the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, the IDF will incorporate such exercises in the basic training of all ground troops.
The study, published Tuesday in Psychological Medicine, is being studied closely by the US Army, which is reportedly considering implementing the psychological training for its soldiers.
The training technique improves the functioning of a soldier’s brain in paying attention to potential threats in his environment. This both better prepares him for action, and decreases the likelihood he develop PTSD. Those suffering from the disorder re-experience a traumatic event through flashbacks and nightmares.
They avoid activities, places or thoughts that recall the trauma; and experience increased anxiety and emotional arousal, including difficulty sleeping, and outbursts of anger, irritability and hyper-vigilance.
Prof. Yair Bar Haim and Dr. Ilan Wald of the TAU psychology department and the Sagol Brain Sciences School conducted the study with experts in the IDF Medical Corps.
“In 2008, we observed large groups of infantry from their basic training through their functioning in the field,” said Bar Haim. “We discovered that the same soldiers who avoided paying attention to potential threats were at higher risk of developing PTSD later.”
Threat monitoring is a neurocognitive system that regulates attention to the threats in the environment and is active at all times and in every individual.
For example, when a person walks down the street, some of his attention is always directed toward monitoring potential threats – threatening faces, sharp movements or a speeding car that is moving in his direction, he explained.
“On a practical level, a battlefront soldier should be more aware of threats in his environment than someone just walking in the street,” said Bar Haim.
Psychologically, a soldier who avoids processing the information correctly and doubts threats in the environment during action on the battlefield is at higher risk of [developing] PTSD. The brain of one suffering from the disorder is unable to process the traumatic event.
Thus one repeatedly relives the encounter in an uncontrolled and terrifying manner.
As a result of these findings, the TAU and IDF researchers determined that soldiers undergo advanced attention training as part of their basic training – and before going into battle.
In the exercise, the soldier is presented with both neutral and threatening stimulants, including words and pictures.
He is asked to identify targets that appear on the screen next to these stimulants for 10 minutes, four times a month.
The findings were tested on 800 combat infantry soldiers from the beginning of 2012.
In the summer of 2014, when Protective Edge began, those soldiers who had undergone advanced attention training were sent into combat together with those who hadn’t had the psychological training. Both groups remained in Gaza fighting for 50 days. Four months later, Bar Haim and colleagues examined them. Only 2.6% of those who had undergone the computer training developed PTSD, compared to 7.8% of those who did not. Thus those who were not trained were at three times the risk of getting the disability.
“It’s quite rare that cognitive behavioral therapy becomes an effective preventive intervention,” said Bar Haim. “The ability to raise the soldier’s mental strength and lowering his risk of PTSD is wonderful news, and puts the army on forefront of preventive medicine in the field of mental health in the world.”