One of the problems with PTSD is that, too often, the symptoms are either just chalked up to “depression” or to the belief that “they’ll get better when they get used to being home again.” The reality, of course, is that neither of those excuses nor the many others that people give that are meant to give comfort to the families of those with PTSD do anything to alleviate the horrors of PTSD.
Following is a basic explanation of exactly what PTSD is, how it affects the men and women coming home from these needless wars, how it can be treated and how the families can help them as they recover. The web has many more resources and you can probably find help very close to home. Just remember, if you’re the vet, then we all welcome you home. If you’re the family of the vet then love, understanding and help finding help is what you can do best.
Also, from personal experience, and I’m speaking to the vet, you are not crazy, you are not “different”, you have simply experienced horrors no one should ever be subjected to. You may be home physically but it will take you time to come home mentally and spiritually. Until then, thank you.
The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can arise suddenly, gradually, or even come and go over time. Sometimes symptoms seem to suddenly appear and then disappear. At times, they can be set off by something that reminds the veteran of the original traumatic event, such as a noise, an image, certain words, or a smell.
While everyone experiences PTSD differently, there are three main types of symptoms:
- Re-experiencing the traumatic event
- Avoiding reminders of the trauma
- Increased anxiety and emotional arousal
Symptoms of PTSD: Re-experiencing the traumatic event
- Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event
- Flashbacks (a feeling that the event is happening again or about to happen again).
- Nightmares (usually of the event or events but also often simply extremely frightening dreams seemingly unrelated to the original event)
- Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma and a feeling that one must escape or hide
- Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (as witnessed by rapid and strong heartbeat, sudden and heavy breathing or feeling of breathlessness, physical nausea, muscle tension, sweating)
Symptoms of PTSD: Avoidance and numbing
- Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma
- Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
- Loss of interest in activities and life in general
- Feeling detached from others and emotional numbness
- Sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career)
- Multiple failed relationships
Symptoms of PTSD: Increased anxiety and emotional arousal
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Irritability or outbursts of anger
- Difficulty concentrating
- Hyper-vigilance (on constant “combat alertness”)
- Feeling jumpy and easily startled
Other common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder
- Anger and irritability
- Guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Substance abuse
- Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
- Depression and hopelessness
- Suicidal thoughts and feelings
- Feeling alienated and alone
- Physical aches and pains
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) causes and risk factors
While it’s impossible to predict who will develop PTSD in response to trauma, there are certain risk factors that increase your vulnerability.
Many risk factors revolve around the nature of the traumatic event itself. Traumatic events are more likely to cause PTSD when they involve a severe threat to your life or personal safety: the more extreme and prolonged the threat, the greater the risk of developing PTSD in response. Intentional, human-inflicted harm—such as rape, assault, and torture— also tends to be more traumatic than “acts of God” or more impersonal accidents and disasters. The extent to which the traumatic event was unexpected, uncontrollable, and inescapable also plays a role.
Other risk factors for PTSD include:
- Previous traumatic experiences, especially in early life
- Family history of PTSD or depression
- History of physical or sexual abuse
- History of substance abuse
- History of depression, anxiety, or another mental illness
- High level of stress in everyday life
- Lack of support after the trauma
- Lack of coping skills
Getting help for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
If you suspect that you or a loved one has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s important to seek help right away. The sooner PTSD is confronted, the easier it is to overcome. If you’re reluctant to seek help, keep in mind that PTSD is not a sign of weakness, and the only way to overcome it is to confront what happened to you and learn to accept it as a part of your past. This process is much easier with the guidance and support of an experienced therapist or doctor.
It’s only natural to want to avoid painful memories and feelings. But if you try to numb yourself and push your memories away, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will only get worse. You can’t escape your emotions completely – they emerge under stress or whenever you let down your guard – and trying to do so is exhausting. The avoidance will ultimately harm your relationships, your ability to function, and the quality of your life.
Why Should I Seek Help for PTSD?
- Early treatment is better. Symptoms of PTSD may get worse. Dealing with them now might help stop them from getting worse in the future. Finding out more about what treatments work, where to look for help, and what kind of questions to ask can make it easier to get help and lead to better outcomes.
- PTSD symptoms can change family life. PTSD symptoms can get in the way of your family life. You may find that you pull away from loved ones, are not able to get along with people, or that you are angry or even violent. Getting help for your PTSD can help improve your family life.
- PTSD can be related to other health problems. PTSD symptoms can worsen physical health problems. For example, a few studies have shown a relationship between PTSD and heart trouble. By getting help for your PTSD you could also improve your physical health.
Source: National Center for PTSD
Treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Treatment for PTSD relieves symptoms by helping you deal with the trauma you’ve experienced. Rather than avoiding the trauma and any reminder of it, you’ll be encouraged in treatment to recall and process the emotions and sensations you felt during the original event. In addition to offering an outlet for emotions you’ve been bottling up, treatment for PTSD will also help restore your sense of control and reduce the powerful hold the memory of the trauma has on your life.
In treatment for PTSD, you’ll:
- Explore your thoughts and feelings about the trauma
- Work through feelings of guilt, self-blame, and mistrust
- Learn how to cope with and control intrusive memories
- Address problems PTSD has caused in your life and relationships
Types of treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for PTSD and trauma involves carefully and gradually “exposing” yourself to thoughts, feelings, and situations that remind you of the trauma. Therapy also involves identifying upsetting thoughts about the traumatic event–particularly thoughts that are distorted and irrational—and replacing them with more balanced picture.
- Family therapy. Since PTSD affects both you and those close to you, family therapy can be especially productive. Family therapy can help your loved ones understand what you’re going through. It can also help everyone in the family communicate better and work through relationship problems.
- Medication. Medication is sometimes prescribed to people with PTSD to relieve secondary symptoms of depression or anxiety. Antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft are the medications most commonly used for PTSD. While antidepressants may help you feel less sad, worried, or on edge, they do not treat the causes of PTSD.
- EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). EMDR incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy with eye movements or other forms of rhythmic, left-right stimulation, such as hand taps or sounds. Eye movements and other bilateral forms of stimulation are thought to work by “unfreezing” the brain’s information processing system, which is interrupted in times of extreme stress, leaving only frozen emotional fragments which retain their original intensity. Once EMDR frees these fragments of the trauma, they can be integrated into a cohesive memory and processed.
To learn more, see EMDR Therapy: A Guide to Making An Informed Choice (PDF).
Finding a therapist for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
When looking for a therapist for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), seek out mental health professionals who specialize in the treatment of trauma and PTSD. You can start by asking your doctor if he or she can provide a referral, however, he or she may not know therapists with experience treating trauma. You may also want to ask other trauma survivors for recommendations, or call a local mental health clinic, psychiatric hospital, or counseling center.
Beyond credentials and experience, it’s important to find a PTSD therapist who makes you feel comfortable and safe, so there is no additional fear or anxiety about the treatment itself. Trust your gut; if a therapist doesn’t feel right, look for someone else. For therapy to work, you need to feel respected and understood.
Help for veterans with PTSD
If you’re a U.S. veteran suffering from PTSD or trauma, you can turn to your local VA hospital or Vet Center for help. Vet Centers offer free counseling to combat veterans and their families. To find out more about the resources and benefits available to you, you can also call the VA Health Benefits Service Center at 1-877-222-VETS.
Click here for a nationwide directory of facilities for veterans, including VA hospitals and Vet Centers, provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the family
If a loved one has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s essential that you take care of yourself and get extra support. PTSD can take a heavy toll on the family if you let it. It can be hard to understand why your loved one won’t open up to you – why he or she is less affectionate and more volatile. The symptoms of PTSD can also result in job loss, substance abuse, and other stressful problems.
Letting your family member’s PTSD dominate your life while ignoring your own needs is a surefire recipe for burnout. In order to take care of your loved one, you first need to take care of yourself. It’s also helpful to learn all you can about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The more you know about the symptoms and treatment options, the better equipped you’ll be to help your loved one and keep things in perspective.
Helping a loved one with PTSD
- Be patient and understanding. Getting better takes time, even when a person is committed to treatment for PTSD. Be patient with the pace of recovery and offer a sympathetic ear. A person with PTSD may need to talk about the traumatic event over and over again. This is part of the healing process, so avoid the temptation to tell your loved one to stop rehashing the past and move on.
- Try to anticipate and prepare for PTSD triggers. Common triggers include anniversary dates; people or places associated with the trauma; and certain sights, sounds, or smells. If you are aware of what triggers may cause an upsetting reaction, you’ll be in a better position to offer your support and help your loved one calm down.
- Don’t take the symptoms of PTSD personally. Common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) include emotional numbness, anger, and withdrawal. If your loved one seems distant, irritable, or closed off, remember that this may not have anything to do with you or your relationship.
- Don’t pressure your loved one into talking. It is very difficult for people with PTSD to talk about their traumatic experiences. For some, it can even make things worse. Never try to force your loved one to open up. Let the person know, however, that you’re there when and if he or she wants to talk.