In recent years, due to the protracted military engagements in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has increased tremendously among our veterans, many of whom have served multiple tours of duty.
Obviously, being involved in a combat theatre would be a traumatic experience for anyone. However, PTSD is not limited to veterans of military action. In essence, we all experience some form of PTSD at some point in our life because we all have some experience of trauma in our life. The extent of that trauma can vary widely, but the bottom line is that trauma is relative to our experience. What is traumatic to one person may not be to another. When we experience a trauma, we will naturally have a response to that trauma. So we can say that PTSD is a normal response to an other than normal situation. Of course, this "normal" response may certainly not feel normal to us at the time.
The symptoms of PTSD can occur after the trauma event has been experienced, sometimes within a short period of time and sometimes it can be months or even years later. Often, our immediate response to trauma can be a form of shock where we can feel "disconnected" from the experience physically (pain minimization) as well as emotionally (numbness). This shock period is instinct driven and designed to help us to survive the situation. It is a temporary state, eventually fading as we return to normal levels of awareness and the PTSD symptoms may then begin to manifest over time. Anxiety, hyper-alertness, exaggerated startle responses, anger/rage, sleep difficulties, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts/visual memories (flashbacks) are all common symptoms that are experienced. Self-medicating behaviors (alcohol, drugs, sex, money, etc.) are often seen as a response to the symptoms. Symptoms can sometimes be "triggered" by a sensory experience of some form. Often, there is a feeling of shame or embarrassment about what is being experienced and this can impair the ability to interact with others, resulting in withdrawal and isolation. The symptoms that a person experiences can begin to have an impact on others around them, especially within their family.A key element in the treatment of PTSD is to express rather than suppress the feelings. Suppression of feelings creates the fuel for anxiety and depression. Expression of feeling releases tension and negative energy, inviting in positive energy to fill that space. So long as that expression of feelings does not bring harm to anything living, it can be useful. You have to feel it to heal it. In order to express the feelings, it is necessary to remove the judgement that may be attached to the feelings/experience. As feelings are expressed, the experience can be processed.
Another key element is anxiety management. Expressing the feelings will bring up anxiety and so there need to have tools in place to help deal with the anxiety. Often, medication is seen as the tool needed, but there are many effective tools available. Training in anxiety management techniques is extremely helpful and can be augmented by activities such as yoga, tai chi, qi gong, floatation tanks, halotherapy (salt caves), and any other activity that the person can utilize to safely express their feelings (art, dance, music, singing, exercise, service animals, etc.). Having outlets to manage anxiety will lead to increased confidence because the results being experienced are due to what the person is doing, rather than what something external (medication) is doing.
Given the time and opportunity to express the feelings, effectively manage the anxiety, and process the experience, the symptoms will begin to decrease. In many cases the symptoms may persist for the remainder of the person's life, but at a manageable level. The trauma experience is not something we will ever forget, nor should we: it is a part of our life experience and has provided us with knowledge, so therefore it has served a purpose. We have survived our experience and our survival is an integral part of our humanness.
Jim Harger, M.Ed., LPC
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