Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can feel like a loosely defined group of symptoms similar to those of grief, fear, anxiety and insecurity — something that happens to someone else, or perhaps a title a professional has placed on typical reactions to traumatic situations. One of the more significant barriers to recognizing the need for help is lack of understanding about the nature and seriousness of PTSD. It is easier for the general public, as well as military personnel, to understand the need to treat a broken arm or open wound, in part because the damage to the body is external and easy to see.
Wounds to the nervous system due to exposure to trauma, while every bit as serious as external wounds, are far less conspicuous and more complex. Also, military personnel are trained to be physically and mentally tough in order to endure the rigors of combat and not dwell on negative emotional states. As a result, it is counterintuitive for Veterans to focus on the negative symptoms associated with PTSD, no less be willing to seek out treatment. Finally, the warrior culture of young men and women in the military stigmatizes the idea of seeking help for PTSD, trauma, depression or anxiety as a sign of weakness or failure.
So, the first and most important step to moving forward is recognizing and honoring the validity of PTSD, and work toward healing without judgment of yourself.
You are not alone, even it feels that way
The first thing people with PTSD should understand is that you are not alone. Cases of trauma-induced PTSD among soldiers have been depicted as far back as 2,500 years in Sophocles’ drama, Ajax. Over the last 100 years, PTSD has also been referred to as “battle fatigue” or “shell shock.” Although you may feel isolated and as if your symptoms are a sign of weakness or personal failure, for better or for worse, you have honorable company in this struggle and your physiological reaction to the trauma you’ve witnessed or experienced is not uncommon.
Fortunately, Veterans today can receive many types of effective treatment to address this condition. Although the personal struggles are different (although not always, there is a high comorbidity of addiction and PTSD), many addiction therapies have been found to help PTSD patients.
In addition to non 12-step recovery methods like cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapies, new approaches to PTSD treatment, like mindfulness, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, sensory experiencing and sensorimotor therapy show great promise.
For some, tenets of 12-step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous can be helpful as a set of loose guidelines and philosophy toward better living, particularly the psychological reframing of the issue from a failure of self-imposed willpower to an acceptance of new tools and community support. If we think of PTSD as trauma to the nervous system that ruptures the individual’s ability to regulate or affect emotions, then the use of drugs or behaviors can be seen as misguided attempts to numb or otherwise discharge this negative emotional state.
The important takeaway, regardless of which form of treatment you choose, is to get the help and support to which you are entitled. Yes, you are strong, you are brave, you are proud, but this is not a “walk it off” or “brush some dirt on it” situation. True courage also lies in looking within, recognizing the need for help and finding the voice to ask for it.
Camaraderie through community
There is anecdotal evidence that suggests dually-diagnosed Veterans can enjoy better outcomes in treatment centers and recovery communities with significant Veteran populations. Veterans report there is a special bond formed among those who have endured combat. This connection also seems to increase levels of trust, understanding and safety for individuals needing to process traumatic events, and relieves you of the awkward limitations of trying to fully convey the gravity of your situation to a civilian who hasn’t shared the experience. Seek out organizations or meet-up groups that cater to Veterans, even if they aren’t therapy or support-oriented, and find your people.
Also, find a passion. Whether it’s fitness, the practice of mindfulness, volunteering, connecting with nature, reading, tinkering or art. Start building yourself up by investing time with people and projects that bring you happiness, or at least a distraction.
In terms of treatment, there is a growing awareness in and outside of the military that PTSD is a serious medical condition for which Veterans should receive treatment. VA has created the National Center of PTSD, specifically designed to provide Veterans with services to assess, diagnose and treat PTSD.
Accept and persevere
You wouldn’t think a diabetic was weak for taking insulin, right? The same is true with seeking help for PTSD — it’s a real diagnosis with symptoms that can be managed with treatment. Admit to yourself that you need help working through the symptoms of your trauma in order to live a more powerful life, recruit others who can either support you or understand your journey, show your bravery by living authentically and honor your past by easing the trauma to make room for growth.
Dr. George Cave is a psychotherapist that specializes in addiction treatment and the family dynamics involved in rehab. He works with patients at Malibu Hills Treatment Center and Prominence Treatment Center, two rehabilitation centers in California.