Why Do Veterans Experience PTSD?
In recent years it has become evident that many people leaving the military suffer from a condition known as PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder. Sufferers find it difficult to readjust to civilian life, feeling emotionally disconnected and numb, on edge, or close to panic. These symptoms make it hard to cope with everyday life, and while the condition is better understood than it used to be, many sufferers still go undiagnosed. However, not all sufferers of these symptoms have been in the military. In fact, they can affect people from all walks of life who have had traumatic experiences of various kinds. Here, we take a closer look at why this condition occurs and how it can be treated.
What Is The Cause Of PTSD?
PTSD has several names including combat stress and shell shock. It occurs after experiencing a life-threatening event or severe trauma. Although it is most commonly associated with wear veterans, it can affect anyone who has had a traumatic experience, for example those who have experienced sexuality, race or gender-related violence or harassment from their peers.
It is quite normal for the body and mind to go into shock after a traumatic event, however, if the nervous system becomes stuck it becomes PTSD. There are two reflexive, automatic ways that the nervous system can respond to a stressful event:
- Mobilization – this is also known as the flight or fight response. It occurs when you have to survive a dangerous situation or defend yourself. The heart begins to pound more quickly, blood pressure goes up, the muscles tighten, and all of this causes your reaction speed and strength to increase. Once the danger is gone, the nervous system begins to calm the body back down, lowering blood pressure and heart rate and, eventually, normal balance is restored.
- Immobilization – this occurs if you’ve become too stressed in a specific situation. Even though that danger has gone, you become “stuck” with the nervous system unable to go back to its normal balanced state. This is known as post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
To recover from PTSD you have to transition from the emotional and mental warzone that you’re living in and allow the nervous system to become “unstuck”.
What Are The Symptoms Associated With PTSD?
It’s possible to develop PTSD symptoms in the days or even hours after a traumatic experience, however, in many cases the symptoms don’t appear for several months or possibly years after the incident itself. Although PTSD can develop differently in each sufferer, there are four separate clusters of symptoms:
Intrusive and recurrent reminders of the traumatic experience – these include nightmares, flashbacks and distressing thoughts. Sufferers may experience strong physical and emotional reactions to any reminder of the incident. These reactions may include heart palpitations, uncontrollable shaking or panic attacks.
- Avoidance of anything that is a reminder of the traumatic experience – this includes thoughts, situations, places and people associated with those negative memories. Avoidance may include withdrawal from family and friends or a loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities.
- Negative mood and thought changes – these may include exaggerated negative beliefs about the world and ongoing feelings of shame, guilt or fear. Sufferers may struggle to experience any positive emotions.
- Feeling on guard permanently – this involves being emotionally reactive and jumpy, with irritability, reckless behavior, anger, trouble concentrating, hypervigilance and difficulty sleeping all being commonplace.
Most people who are traumatized will experience symptoms similar to those associated with PTSD in the short-term after the event itself, but most won’t go on to develop chronic (ongoing) PTSD. Symptom must have lasted for over a month for PTSD to be the diagnosis, and must be sufficiently severe to interfere with work or relationships. The course of the condition will also vary. While some sufferers will recover in as little as six month, others have longer-lasting symptoms.
Psychiatrists, psychologists and specialist doctors with experience in supporting those suffering from mental illnesses are able to give a diagnosis of PTSD. For this diagnosis to be given, the sufferer must have experienced all of these for a minimum of a month:
- A minimum of one re-experiencing symptom
- A minimum of one avoidance symptom,
- A minimum of two reactivity and arousal symptoms
- A minimum of two mood and cognition symptoms.
What Are Re-experiencing Symptoms?
These symptoms include frightening thoughts, bad dreams and flashbacks. These usually cause issues with everyday life. The symptoms may begin from feelings or thoughts, or situations, objects and words that remind the sufferer of the event may trigger these symptoms.
What Are Avoidance Symptoms?
These include staying away from any object, event or place that reminds the sufferer of the experience. Sufferers even avoid any feelings or thoughts relating to that event. Anything that reminds the sufferer of the traumatic experience may trigger these types of symptoms. The sufferer may begin to change their personal routine to avoid any kind of reminder of the traumatic event.
What Are Reactivity And Arousal Symptoms?
These include feeling on edge or tense, being easily startled, having angry outbursts or struggling to sleep. Usually, arousal symptoms are constant rather than being triggered by something that is a reminder of the traumatic event. Symptoms like these make the sufferer feel angry or stressed, and make it difficult to carry out daily tasks like concentrating, eating or sleeping.
What Are Mood And Cognition Symptoms?
These include difficulty in remembering the key features of the incident, having negative feelings or thoughts about the world, losing interest in formerly enjoyable activities and distorted feelings such as blame or guilt. Mood and cognition symptoms may start or get worse after the traumatic experience, but aren’t caused by substance use or injury. The symptoms may make the sufferer feel detached or alienated from family members or friends.
PTSD often coexists with other conditions including anxiety disorders, depression or substance abuse.
What Are The Risk Factors For PTSD?
Anybody may develop post traumatic stress disorder at any age. War veterans are most commonly associated with this condition, but people who’ve suffered a sexual or physical assault, abuse, a disaster or accident or any other serious event can also be affected. In fact, around seven or eight out of every hundred people are expected to experience post traumatic stress disorder at some point during their lifetime, with women being more at risk than men. Some people also have genetic factors that make them more prone to this condition.
Not everybody who has PTSD has experienced a traumatic event themselves. Some people will develop this condition after a loved one or friend experiences harm or danger. The unexpected or sudden death of someone close may also cause PTSD to develop.
Not everybody who experiences a serious traumatic incident will develop post traumatic stress disorder, and most won’t. Some of the key factors at play in determining whether someone is more likely to develop this condition include:
- Living through a trauma or dangerous event
- Getting hurt
- Seeing a dead body or another person being injured
- Experiencing childhood trauma
- Feeling extreme fear, helplessness or horror
- Having no or little social support following the event
- Coping with additional stress following the event like injury, pain, losing a home or job, or the death of someone close
- Having a history of substance abuse or mental illness
There are, however, some factors which could help to boost recovery following trauma. These include:
- Seeking help and support from others like family or friends
- Joining a support group following the traumatic event
- Having positive coping strategies
- Being able to respond and act effectively despite feeling afraid
- Learning to feel positive about one’s actions in adversity
Are There Any Therapies Or Treatments?
There are several treatments available for people who suffer from PTSD. They include psychotherapy, medications or both. Everybody is different, so this condition affects people in different ways. One treatment may work well for one sufferer but not for another. It’s essential for anybody with PTSD to get treatment by a mental health practitioner with experience in treating PTSD since different treatments may need to be tried to determine the best solution for the individual. If somebody suffering from PTSD is also experiencing another ongoing condition, such as panic disorder, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse or depression, this must be addressed at the same time.
How Can Veterans Promote Their Recovery From PTSD?
There are several recommended options that can help veterans to promote their recovery from post traumatic stress disorder. These include:
Taking regular exercise – this helps to burn off adrenaline and improve mood by releasing endorphins. Also, by focusing on the body and the way it feels during exercise it’s possible to aid the nervous system in becoming unstuck so the immobilization stress response can be overcome. Rhythmic exercises engaging both the legs and arms work well, especially when mindfulness techniques are used in conjunction with the exercise.
Spending time outdoors – hiking, mountain biking, camping, whitewater rafting, skiing and rock climbing can help to challenge vulnerable feelings and help sufferers to transition back to civilian life.
Mindful breathing – taking sixty breaths and focusing attention on the outward breath can help to calm sufferers down in stressful situations.
Connecting with other people – veterans and others suffering from PTSD can benefit greatly from spending time with others. Socializing with friends and family, volunteering or joining a support group can all be beneficial.
Self care strategies – PTSD symptoms like anger, insomnia, jumpiness and concentration problems are hard on the body and take a toll eventually on health. Self-care strategies are therefore vital. Many sufferers are drawn to behaviors and activities that cause an adrenaline spike, for example taking drugs, driving recklessly, drinking too much caffeine, or playing violent video games. However, recognizing these urges and making better choices to protect and calm the mind and body is important for recovery. Taking time to practice relaxation techniques, finding safe ways of blowing off steam, eating healthily and getting sufficient sleep while avoiding drugs and alcohol can all help to make the symptoms of PTSD easier to cope with.
Dealing with intrusive thoughts, nightmares and flashbacks – learning “dual awareness” techniques is a key element in recovery. Sufferers must learn to recognize that their experiences aren’t happening to them in the present and state to themselves the reality around them. Learning how to ground themselves when experiencing flashbacks is extremely useful in minimizing the challenging symptoms of this condition.
Working through survivor’s guilt – many people with PTSD suffer from survivor’s guilt. This is especially common amongst veterans. In the moment of the traumatic experience, it’s impossible to process those events fully, but later on, those experiences return and haunt sufferers. Questions like “why did I not get hurt?”, “why did I survive?” or “was there something more I could have done to save others?” all come to mind. It’s important to learn how to view the situation more realistically and to ask more useful questions such as “did I do the best I could in that situation?” “could I truly have prevented what happened?” or “is it reasonable for me to assume this amount of responsibility for the event?”
Seeking professional help – professional treatments for PTSD may help sufferers confront the traumatic event in their past and learn to accept it as such. CBT, counseling, medications and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing) therapies can all help the nervous system to become unstuck so moving on from the event becomes possible.
Recovering From PTSD
Veterans who suffer from PTSD must seek help as soon as they recognize the symptoms and signs of the condition developing. The sooner medical advice is sought, the sooner treatments can be tried and the best solution found to ease the symptoms and find ongoing relief.
PTSD can have a serious negative impact on a sufferer’s life. Not only can it cause unpleasant and difficult to live with symptoms, but it can also cause other mental health and physical problems such as addiction, depression, and anxiety. It can also cause family and work-related problems that can have long-lasting ramifications. Therefore, seeking help as early as possible from a facility like The Meadowglade is imperative to have the best chance of a full and lasting recovery from this surprisingly common yet no less challenging mental health condition.