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The Therapeutic Value of a Campfire on Veterans and Their Mental Health

A new approach is revolutionizing mental health support for veterans - the ancient, humble campfire. Despite its simplicity, research shows that gathering around a campfire can significantly aid in managing PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues often experienced by veterans. This article delves into the therapeutic power of the campfire and its multifaceted applications in veterans' mental health.


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions are all too common among military veterans. Traditional treatment methods, including medication and psychotherapy, have proven effective to varying degrees, but they aren't the only options available. One approach gaining traction is a technique as old as humanity itself: gathering around a campfire. Although seemingly simplistic, a growing body of evidence supports the therapeutic benefits of campfires for veterans.

The Power of the Campfire:

The therapeutic value of the campfire lies in its multi-faceted nature, encompassing physiological, psychological, and social aspects.

Physiological benefits:

Being near a fire has a calming effect on the human mind. The hypnotic dance of flames, crackling of wood, and warmth can stimulate a relaxation response. According to a study by the University of Alabama, watching a fire reduces blood pressure, indicating a reduction in stress levels. This natural tranquillity can provide a grounding environment for veterans to manage their mental health symptoms more effectively.

Psychological benefits:

Campfires create a comfortable atmosphere conducive to introspection and mental processing. This environment can make therapy sessions more effective. Moreover, the act of building a fire can also be therapeutic. Gathering wood, arranging it, and lighting it requires focus, patience, and determination - valuable skills that can be translated into everyday life.

Social benefits:

The campfire has been a communal space since our ancestors first harnessed fire. In a group setting, the shared experience of sitting around a campfire can foster camaraderie, build trust, and encourage open conversation. For veterans who often struggle with feelings of isolation, this shared experience can help re-establish social connections, vital for mental well-being.

Campfires in Practice:

Across the country, veteran-focused organizations have started to integrate campfires into their treatment programs. Therapeutic retreats often incorporate campfires as part of group therapy sessions. In these settings, trained therapists facilitate discussion and reflection around the fire, employing techniques from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and other therapeutic modalities.

In one program, veterans are guided to construct and maintain the fire themselves. The task serves as a metaphor for their healing process: just as they must gather wood, ignite the fire, and keep it burning, they must actively work on their mental health recovery.

Personal narratives of veterans highlight the healing power of campfires. They describe feelings of relaxation, increased openness in sharing experiences, and a greater sense of connection with their peers.

Storytelling and Narrative Therapy:

Historically, the campfire was a place for storytelling. Integrating this aspect, veterans could be encouraged to share their narratives, fostering empathy and understanding within the group. Narrative therapy suggests that people are the experts in their own lives and that their life stories are a rich source of problem-solving resources. By recounting their experiences, veterans can process their past, understand the present, and shape their future in a supportive environment.

Mindfulness Practice:

A campfire can be an excellent focal point for mindfulness practices. The changing patterns of the flames, the sensation of warmth, the sound of crackling wood - all of these elements can guide mindfulness exercises, helping veterans stay in the moment and manage anxiety or stress.

Wilderness Therapy:

Wilderness therapy combines outdoor experiences with therapeutic interventions. The campfire can serve as a central aspect of wilderness therapy for veterans, integrating the therapeutic benefits of nature with the psychological and physiological benefits of the campfire.

Skill-Building Activities:

Aside from mental health benefits, campfires can also be used for skill-building activities, such as survival techniques, to instill confidence and self-efficacy in veterans.

Campfire Ceremonies:

Symbolic activities such as campfire ceremonies can be impactful. Veterans could write down a challenge they're facing or a past trauma on a piece of paper and throw it into the fire, symbolizing their intention to overcome it.

Researching Campfire Therapy:

While anecdotal evidence and smaller studies suggest a positive effect, comprehensive research into the therapeutic value of campfires for veterans' mental health is needed. To this end, partnerships between veteran organizations, mental health institutions, and academic researchers can provide invaluable insights.

A multi-faceted approach could be employed, combining quantitative measures such as surveys and heart rate monitoring with qualitative methods such as interviews and narrative analysis.


While traditional treatments remain the cornerstone of mental health care for veterans, the power of the campfire offers an additional, accessible tool to promote healing and recovery. A campfire's communal warmth and hypnotic glow provide a unique setting for therapeutic interventions, fostering physiological relaxation, psychological processing, and social connection. As research continues to explore this promising area, the humble campfire may increasingly become part of the standard toolkit for supporting the mental health of our nation's veterans.

Image provided by John Heintzelman using (2023).

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