Contributed by Kim Dennis, MD, CEDS – CEO/Medical Director Emeritus, Timberline Knolls.
It was described as the thousand-yard stare as early as World War I: the vacant, confused gaze of a battle-weary soldier. In later years, additional phrases such as shell-shocked and battle fatigued were coined to describe the same condition. Today, we know these people were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it would be decades before the diagnosis was established and understood.
In fact, PTSD was only recognized as a legitimate condition five years after the end of the Vietnam War. No doubt, this was why so many veterans returning home from that war were so misunderstood and persecuted while rarely receiving the help they so desperately needed.
While it’s still PTSD Awareness Month, let’s take a look at the many symptoms of this disorder, plus the role it plays in military life.
PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in psychological trauma. The key word here is “psychological.” The truth is most physical injuries usually do heal in time. However, for many people, the mental and emotional pain associated with trauma is relentless and destructive, ultimately damaging many lives and relationships.
PTSD Symptoms Manifest In Four Ways, Including:
• Intrusive Memories
People are plagued by trauma-related memories, which often pop up at random times. Nightmares and flashbacks are not unusual, and a person may find themselves reliving a traumatic event due to an environmental trigger, such as a certain smell or sound.
The person avoids thinking about or speaking of the event. For example, an individual may cease driving altogether due to involvement in a terrible accident. Another person may avoid leaving the house after dark, for that was the time of day a traumatic event occurred.
• Negative Changes In Beliefs And Feelings
With this condition, the person’s worldview slowly alters from positive to negative. The belief that people cannot be trusted can result in broken relationships. The person feels emotionally numb, hopeless and rarely enjoys pleasurable activities.
• Changes in Emotional Reactions
The person exists in a state of hyper-arousal, always alert for danger. Sudden anger and irritability become commonplace. Concentrating on anything becomes challenging, and insomnia becomes the norm. Engaging in self-destructive behavior, such as consuming too much alcohol, grows in frequency.
PTSD In The American Military
American soldiers, men, and women alike are many things: Each is brave, patriotic, courageous, and even fearless. But, more importantly, they are human, with feelings and emotions just like everyone else.
Although any war, by definition, is bad, modern combat is particularly gruesome. Soldiers witness atrocities committed against other people that no one back in America could ever imagine. It is no wonder that even the best of soldiers often return home highly traumatized.
Approximately 18.5% of service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. Although approximately 50% of returning servicemembers seek treatment for mental health conditions, only slightly more than half of this group receives adequate care.
So, imagine returning from war and experiencing horrifying memories of friends being killed, nightmares of bullets and bomb blasts, ongoing fear, anxiety and depression, all while trying to be the wife, husband, parent or child you once were? This is nearly an impossible assignment.
These hurting people often turn to alcohol, prescription drugs or street drugs to provide an escape from the pain. In fact, two out of every 10 Veterans with PTSD also have substance use disorder (SUD).
What holds true for the rest of the world certainly applies to veterans: Take drugs or consume alcohol long enough, and addiction will result. With this particular group of people, such behavior often leads to homelessness and, all too often, suicide. Between 2005 and 2009, more than 1,100 members of the Armed Forces took their own lives, an average of 1 suicide every 36 hours. Afterward, the Army’s suicide rate reached an all-time high in 2012.
Why Aren’t Some Getting PTSD Help?
For those who remain in the military, the greatest factor regarding the lack of treatment is the stigma. Unfortunately, throughout the military, psychiatric issues are perceived differently than physical problems. This means that those with PTSD often suffer in silence, believing that if counseling is requested, they will be seen as weak, their leaders will treat them differently and fellow troops will lose confidence in them. To its credit, the American military is actively working to reduce this stigma.
Just as this shame must be mitigated, so must the overriding perception that those with PTSD must suffer endlessly and never return to a normal, productive life. This is simply not the case, especially since many therapeutic approaches have been successfully utilized in treating PTSD, including:
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
- Somatic Experiencing
- Trauma Sensitive Yoga
- Group Therapy
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Sensory Motor Work
PTSD is not a disease, it is a disorder – a completely understandable and reasonable condition when any person has experienced the horrors of war.
There is no shame in needing help. The only shame is not getting the help you need. If you or someone you love is displaying symptoms of PTSD, don’t hesitate to get help.
About the Author:
Dr. Kim Dennis is a board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorder treatment, addiction recovery, trauma / PTSD and co-occurring disorders. As CEO/Medical Director Emeritus, she provides consultation to the clinical director and participates in the Timberline Knolls Clinical Development Institute and other outreach initiatives. Dr. Dennis maintains a holistic perspective in the practice of psychiatry. She incorporates biological, psycho-social and spiritual approaches into individually-tailored treatment plans. Dr. Dennis is published in the areas of gender differences in the development of psychopathology, co-occurring eating disorders and self-injury, and the use of medication with family-based therapy for adolescents with anorexia nervosa.
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Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on June 16, 2016
Published on AddictionHope.com