Fortunately, humans are equipped with a highly functional nervous system that, under typical conditions, can successfully deal with most stressors and threats. For example, relatively common experiences like nearly running over a piece of garbage on the freeway, an argument between two people in a retail store, or being disappointed by a loved one are stressful and somewhat threatening situations that are usually managed effectively by most people’s nervous systems.
In circumstances like these, most people feel a temporary surge of adrenaline and hyper awareness to the potential threat; their nervous system prepares them for “fight or flight” and mobilizes the necessary resources to effectively deal with the situation. In relatively short order, the fight or flight reactivity usually subsides naturally, and they are able to return to the flow of their lives: driving, shopping, and social engagement.
However, under extreme or chronic conditions of stress and threat, as is common in military service, the nervous system can become overwhelmed. In fact, the chemical and physical make-up of the brain-body stress response system can be altered by experiences of extreme or chronic stress (i.e., trauma). For many service members, this can result in decreased “resiliency”, or the capacity to effectively manage everyday life circumstances. This shift in resiliency can occur immediately after the experience of trauma, but very often it can occur down the road, sometimes years later.
For some service members, the trauma-related changes to the nervous system progresses to the point where he or she qualifies for the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The diagnosis of PTSD is made when a person was directly or indirectly exposed to an extremely stressful or threatening event or series of events that resulted in symptoms of intrusion (e.g., disturbing memories, nightmares, flashbacks), avoidance (e.g., avoidance of thoughts, people, places, and things associated with past trauma), negative alterations in thinking and mood (e.g., self-blame, guilt, shame, isolation, withdrawal, depression), and alterations in arousal and activity (e.g., insomnia, hypervigilance, irritability, anger, self-destructive behavior).
These trauma-related symptoms are very distressing. But, for a variety of reasons, many service members don’t seek help and, despite their best efforts, are unable to manage the symptoms on their own. Therefore, it is common for these individuals to cope with their symptoms by turning to addictive behaviors, like alcohol and drugs, pornography and sex, gambling, video games, and disordered eating. Of course, while these behaviors may temporarily modify unpleasant trauma-related symptoms, they frequently result in more distress and added functional limitations.
The everyday situations mentioned above will be used here to better understand the experience of PTSD. For many service members, a piece of garbage on the freeway would likely elicit thoughts, memories, or flashbacks about Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). This experience could easily result in driving-related stress and hypervigilance, intrusive memories or flashbacks, poor concentration while driving, fear and avoidance of driving, or anger and road-rage.
When encountering an argument between two people in a retail store, a service member who is affected by past trauma might experience a pronounced fight or flight response. If it is a fight response, he or she may experience intrusive memories or flashbacks of previous violent encounters and surges of adrenaline in preparation for defending oneself or attacking others. If the individual has a flight response, he or she may experience overwhelming urges to leave the store, avoid that store and similar retail stores, and retreat further from public places and crowds.
If a military service member who is affected by trauma is disappointed by a loved one, he or she may escalate quickly to irritability and anger, perhaps reacting by yelling, throwing things, or becoming violent. Alternatively, the anger might secretly fester into resentments that result in addictive acting out behaviors. On the other hand, being let down by a loved one might result in painful feelings of being misunderstood, guilt and shame, self-loathing, sadness, and depression.
As these vignettes illustrate, services members can have pronounced nervous system reactivity in response to everyday situations as a result of their history of traumatic experiences. This reactivity takes them out of the present moment flow of routine life and leaves them feeling uncomfortable in their own skin and disconnected from other people. In this state, they are more likely to resort to addictive and unhealthy behaviors. Sadly, many service members suffer in silence, and some don’t get help before it’s too late.
Fortunately, it’s never too late to get help, and there is hope! Appropriate treatment can help to identify past traumas, current symptoms, and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Additionally, treatment can help reduce nervous system reactivity and restore its natural capacity for self-regulation. Treatment can help affected service members to let go of shame and self-destructive behaviors. Restoration of resiliency means that service members will once again feel confident in their abilities to manage everyday life situations. Lastly, service members who receive appropriate treatment can reestablish safe connections to peers, loved ones, and the world around them – they are able once again to enter the flow of life and experience all that it has to offer!