In light of the recent passing of Remembrance Sunday and Veterans Day, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s continued interest in mental health, let’s focus this month on a mental health issue that sadly affects so many of our servicemen and women: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, once known as shell shock or battle fatigue syndrome, is a mental health condition that can result after being exposed to or witnessing a traumatic event, such as combat in the case of the military. Further, spouses, children, and family of servicemen and women can also be at risk of developing PTSD upon learning that their loved one was involved in a traumatic incident, such as combat. Not everyone who is exposed to trauma goes on to develop PTSD – some people process the event by talking with a loved one, or a superior, or a friend and seem to be able to function well afterwards. However, other people are affected differently by the event and PTSD develops.
For this second group of individuals, after exposure to the trauma, they begin to re-experience the event persistently. This means that they have repeated flashbacks of the event or intrusive thoughts that won’t go away, or perhaps they have nightmares every night that disturb their sleep – or some combination of all of the above. In essence, they continuously keep reliving the traumatic event in their mind, and it causes significant pain and distress. Because of this distress, they then try to persistently avoid anything that reminds them of the traumatic event. For example, this may mean avoiding certain places that trigger unpleasant memories, or certain people. It could also mean that certain activities, thoughts, and even feelings are avoided. While the positive effect of this is that some distress is avoided, there is a very notable problem to this, namely that this risks social isolation, loss of favored activities, and restricted movements.
People suffering with PTSD also suffer emotionally, with persistent feelings of anxiety sometimes with panic attacks, irritability, anger outbursts, hypervigilance (scanning of the environment for threats), restlessness, poor concentration, and difficulty sleeping. The re-experiencing of the event, avoidance of distressing reminders of the event, and emotional suffering for those with PTSD all causes significant distress and impairment at work, with friends, and in all relationships.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, of course, not only affects members of the military, but can occur to anyone who witnesses or experiences a traumatic event. Also at risk are those who learn that a close family member was involved in a traumatic incident (this is particularly common for children), and those who received repeated first-hand exposure to details of traumatic events. In this latter instance, first responders (such as firemen and police officers) and therapists are most at risk because of hearing the detailed descriptions of traumatic incidents from victims and patients.
There is help for those suffering with trauma and PTSD. Certain medications can help with some of the symptoms and talk therapy can help reduce the link between the traumatic event and the associated painful and anxious feelings, as well as eliminate feelings of alienation, isolation, and fear. Many people suffering with PTSD feel alone and unsafe in the world, and a primary goal of treatment would be the creation of a strong support system to provide the patient with the care and safety they need. If you or anyone you know needs help after suffering a traumatic event in their lives, let them know that they aren’t along and that help is available.
For further reading on PTSD and the military, please look to the following links:
National Geographic Article on brain trauma from blast force (beware initial graphic image)
Military with PTSD
Wounded Warrior Project
Walking with the Wounded
With deepest gratitude to those who have served and to those who continue to serve their country, and additional thankfulness to their spouses and families who show incredible courage, strength, and sacrifice.