Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is all too common within our armed forces, and unfortunately, many military personnel silently struggle with it both while they are deployed, as well as when they return home. According to a report recently published by the RAND Corporation, approximately 1 in 5 veterans deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan now suffer from PTSD or major depression. However, according to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, up to 30% of all military veterans suffer from PTSD – and these numbers are conservative. The more unfortunate fact of the matter is that it’s estimated that approximately 50% of individuals suffering with PTSD never seek the proper medical treatment necessary to help heal them.
PTSD can be caused by a wide range of circumstances whose significance is dependent upon the individual experiencing them. In general, the anxiety disorder is brought on by the experience of one or more traumatic life events in which the individual either perceived their life to be in serious danger, was severely injured or felt that there was a substantial threat to “physical integrity.” This exposure must additionally be coupled with the individual having reacted in a manner of “helplessness, fear or horror” during or after such an event.
The battlefield can be a scary place where the fear of safety remains a constant fixture within the pit of one’s stomach every moment of every day. As a result, the various causes of PTSD can be the result of a myriad of reasons from basic combat exposure to IED explosions, physical and/or sexual assault, and/or terrorist attacks.
All of these things have the ability to cause immense emotional and psychological stress on the individuals involved. The unfortunate reality is that many go years – and sometimes even lifetimes – without ever understanding the source of their internal conflict.
Characteristics & Symptoms of Diagnosis
While many are generally aware of depression and anxiety as two indicators of PTSD, the truth is slightly more complex. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), there are three main symptoms of which PTSD is characterized by:
- Re-experiencing the traumatic events. This is typically in the form of night terrors, flashbacks and other distressing forms of recalling the experience(s). Episodes are often spontaneous and involuntary, and can include dissociative states of consciousness and moments of debilitating panic and terror.
- Emotional numbness. Many individuals suffering with PTSD suffer from avoidance-like behavior (sometimes characterized as a fourth symptom) and a generalized coldness towards relationships and others, especially those that are reminders of the trauma. A loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities and an inability to seek out personal connections are also major symptoms of emotional numbness.
- Generalized heightened state of arousal. This typically manifests itself in the form of sleeplessness, emotional irritability, hypervigilance, reckless behavior and/or an overall state of restlessness/jumpiness. Individuals become easily excited and can have a tendency to overreact when startled.
There are a wide-array of additional symptoms that may accompany what we’ve listed here. For example, individuals struggling with PTSD are often more prone to substance abuse problems.
Unfortunately, we find that the veteran community is plagued by higher instances of divorce, unemployment and homelessness as well. In fact, according to one Pentagon study, divorce rates amongst Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is as high as 78%, while unemployment rates are about 20% and homelessness is around 10%.
Sadly, most of these symptoms don’t begin to surface until a soldier has returned home from a deployment. Adjusting back to civilian life can be at times a debilitating struggle. And problems with re-entry into civilian life and assimilation can exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD.
Traumatic triggers also often plague individuals attempting to cope with their PTSD on a daily basis. For example, if a traumatic event occurred on a cloudless, sunny day, these weather characteristics may very well serve as a potential trigger. Particular sounds, feelings, smells, people or locations are things which may also trigger uncomfortable feelings and the onset of PTSD symptoms like anxiety, fear or anger.
There are two types of triggers for individuals suffering from PTSD.
TRIGGER 1: Environmental Triggers
Environmental triggers occur as a result of one’s surroundings. They tend to be unavoidable and quite often innocuous in nature to an everyday individual not suffering from the effects of PTSD. Those that are affected, however, often suffer from heightened nervous system states of arousal and as a result can quite conceivably be thrust into an episode over things like:
- Car and truck backfires
- Car engines revving
- Car acceleration
- Busy crowds
- Bright lights
- Certain smells, sights or feelings
Service dogs are helpful in reducing the stress of these types of situations because they provide comfort to their handlers. For example, if a veteran experiences a flashback after hearing a car backfire while he’s walking into the bank, his service dog is trained to pick up on the signs and divert attention so that he feels safe and comfortable again.
Service dogs are also highly perceptive to environmental cues and small nuances/changes in an individual’s behavior. When sensing apprehension, fear, anxiety or stress, they often times are useful in creating a physical barrier between an individual and the situation in question, even if it’s to simply redirect one’s attention from potential triggers.
TRIGGER 2: Trauma-Specific Triggers
When something happens that only one veteran can relate to – as opposed to a sight or sound that a large group of people would be able to relate to – it’s what’s known as a trauma-specific trigger. These triggers often elicit a specific memory that reminds someone of a horrific experience. Examples include:
- Hearing helicopters or seeing military tanks
- Watching a similar situation on a television show or movie
- Smelling a scent that was also at the scene of the incident (food, smoke, etc.)
Service animals cannot do anything to prevent a trauma-specific triggers, however they are a key component in shaping what happens afterwards since they provide a means for distraction, re-integration through tactile stimulation, and of course, a sense of comfort, security and protection.
Many veterans struggle with PTSD and find the prospect of diagnosis, and subsequently acceptance, almost overwhelming at times. Many refuse treatment, while others are too scared, embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help in the first place. Suffering from PTSD with no professional help or medication can lead to devastating results. Sadly, countless news headlines remind us all of this fact.
If you or a veteran you know is (or may potentially be) struggling with PTSD, it’s important to reach out to a licensed health professional or your local VA hospital. There’s no shame in asking for help. Over 500,000 military veterans suffer from PTSD. You are not alone in what you may be thinking, or how you may be feeling.