Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Sgt. Mayfield was on his third tour of Iraq. During his first tour he had been seriously wounded when leading his squad of soldiers across an open field. After spending a year in rehabilitation he requested a second deployment. “I have some unfinished business to take care of in Iraq” he told his command. He shipped out a short time later. But within two months of being in country his PTSD from the previous deployment had seriously compromised his mission readiness. With tremendous sadness, and a sense of humiliation, he was sent home.
Sgt. Mayfield, however, was not the type of quit. He remembered the men he had served with during his first deployment, some of whom never returned home. The Sgt felt it his duty to return to Iraq and complete a deployment. Once again, he requested that he be allowed to deploy. No one believed he was ready. Certainly not his command.
The sergeant’s PTSD had not resolved. But no matter. Sgt. Mayfield was determined. He kept insisting that he be allowed to deploy. After several months the command agreed, more from being worn down than from being won over.
So the sergeant packed his duffle bags and headed back to Iraq for round three. Although PTSD continued to plague him, Sgt Mayfield executed his duties with exemplary skills. He completed the deployment. With the mission accomplished, he returned home enjoying a new sense of freedom.
Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Whether you serve in the military, or you are a civilian, trauma can unexpectedly become a part of your life. Approximately 7% of Americans will struggle with PTSD at some time in their lives. The cause of psychological trauma varies: an automobile accident, a violent crime, a natural disaster, growing up in an abusive home, war, etc. No matter what the reason, when someone experiences trauma the reactions to it have some common features. These include:
1. Thoughts of the traumatizing event come to mind and are difficult stop thinking about
2. Nightmares – sometimes of the event that one went through, but sometimes just an increase in nightmares more generally
3. A feeling of needing to be constantly ‘on the alert’ for danger
4. Increased feelings of distrust
5. A tendency to ‘keep a close watch’ on one’s surroundings including other people
6. Becoming angry or frightened by things that remind one of the person, or the event, that created the trauma
7. Avoiding people or places that remind one of the trauma
Some people have the mistaken belief that PTSD is a sign of weakness. This, of course, is not true. PTSD is the natural reaction of the brain to a traumatizing event.
Think of it this way, when someone goes through an event that is terrifying the brain gets to work trying to figure out how to avoid being in that situation ever again (that’s called the ‘survival instinct’). As a result, the brain automatically begins to set up ways to remain safe.
It becomes hyperalert to anything that might suggest that danger is nearby. Particularly anything that is at all similar to the original trauma. For example, if you were attacked in a parking lot, at night, by a man wearing a red baseball cap and yellow shirt it would not be surprising if you became keenly aware of people wearing red baseball caps, or yellow shirts. When these reminders did arise in day to day life, you would very likely experience an automatic visceral response: increased heart rate, sweating, anxiety, etc.
This response often leads one to eventually avoid anything that seems similar to that which was associated with the trauma. In time isolation can occur. Flashbacks and nightmares are also common.
You may be thinking that the brain of someone who has PTSD tends to make life a lot tougher than it needs to be. You’re right!
The good news is that there are many ways to help the PTSD brain calm down. Ways to let the brain know that it no longer needs to be on ‘high alert’ all of the time. What's more, if someone has experienced only one trauma (rather than multiple traumas) then the steps needed to dial down the brain's 'high alert' status is often straight forward. (Not easy, but generally straight forward).
When someone has had many traumas, however, it becomes more complicated. Nevertheless, even those who have experienced years of trauma will often find that they too can make good progress when they diligently practice what is taught in counseling.
Conclusion PTSD Part I
In the next Trauma blog post I will discuss some things that you can do to help yourself (or suggest to someone you know who is struggling with PTSD). In the meantime, it is a good idea to consider speaking with a counselor, one who is familiar with trauma.
Most therapists who work with PTSD take an approach that involves coaching clients to learn a handful of new skills. When these skills are used consistently it results in the brain beginning to ‘rewire’ itself so that a greater sense of peace and wellbeing are achieved. Working to undo the impact of trauma is not easy, but most people will find that it is effective.