We honor those who have died in military service for our country in monuments, memorials, parades and moments of silence. However, it’s also important to honor and support those who have served during times of war and armed conflict and whose mental health continues to suffer as a result.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder describes a mental health condition when someone who has experienced a traumatic event continues to experience severe anxiety and flashbacks over an extended period of time afterwards. Such symptoms are a normal reaction to a traumatic event, and they aren’t typically classified as PTSD until the symptoms may even get worse with time and extend over months or years.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, psychologists diagnose PTSD through a variety of symptoms, which are categorized into four main categories: re-experiencing, avoidance, negative changes in thinking or mood, and changes in emotional reactions (sometimes called “arousal” symptoms).

  • Re-experiencing symptoms can range from flashbacks to upsetting unwanted memories, nightmares, or severe distress to reminders of the traumatic event.
  • Avoidance symptoms refer to the behavior or avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma or refusing to think or talk about it.
  • Negative changes in thinking and mood can include feelings of hopelessness, the inability to experience any positive feelings, and problems with memory relating to the traumatic event.
  • Arousal symptoms may include always feeling on edge, having angry outbursts or aggressive behavior, having trouble concentrating or sleeping, and feeling acute guilt or shame.

Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will experience PTSD. In fact, most who have experienced trauma get better on their own after a period of recovery and care. Although anyone, young or old, can develop PTSD, some people are more at risk. A few risk factors for developing PTSD include already having experienced trauma earlier in their life as a child, having experienced prolonged or especially intense trauma, and a prior predisposition to mental health issues.

Combat exposure is one of the most common events leading to PTSD. The United States military has one of the highest rates of PTSD in history, and probably in the world, according to this Vanity Fair article.

Treatments for PTSD vary and can be tailored to the individual. Treatments may include medication such as antidepressants, and/or from working either one-on-one with or in a group with a professional therapist.

Some types of therapy target the symptoms of PTSD, and others focus on problems related to the patient’s family, social life or job. Therapy often helps educate about PTSD symptoms and teach about the best ways to manage them.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one common treatment strategy, and can include tactics like gradually exposing the PTSD sufferer to the trauma in a safe way and helping people make sense of their upsetting memories. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Sometimes people remember the event differently than how it happened. They may feel guilt or shame about something that is not their fault. The therapist helps people with PTSD look at what happened in a realistic way.”

Support from friends and family can play a key role in the PTSD sufferer’s path to recovery. If a loved one is suffering from this disorder, you can help.

Mayo Clinic’s web site cautions that PTSD symptoms such as withdrawal and mood changes can put serious strains on personal relationships, and that conversations with your loved one about their trauma may be very difficult for you. Great advice is to remember that change may happen slowly over time, that you can’t force someone to change or be responsible for their healing.
However, you can continue to educate yourself about the symptoms and make yourself available to assist with treatment in any way that you can, including attending therapy sessions if recommended, or just being available to talk if that’s what your loved one wants. Continue to take care of yourself and try to incorporate your loved one into events that they enjoyed before their trauma.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army / CC 2.0