Adjusting to life after combat deployment doesn’t happen overnight. Meantime, a returnee’s health and relationships can suffer. Timely treatment can help.
What Is PTSD?
Service members who have experienced combat often have reactions such as jumpiness, flashbacks to combat events, and irritability. They may have sleep problems too, such as difficulty falling asleep and having nightmares once they do fall asleep. They may feel depressed and lonely, even when they’re with friends and family.
For some people, these signs of stress go away after a few months. For others, the problems don’t go away or get worse, and can result in a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as “PTSD.” Left untreated, PTSD can devastate families and relationships, and lead to problems such as drug and alcohol abuse.
Seeking help for PTSD historically carried a stigma. Service members who sought treatment might find that their chances for promotion were compromised. They worried about being perceived as weak.
Today we know that stress after combat is what experts call “a normal response to an abnormal situation.” Medical research has shown that living through a traumatic event can create changes in the brain that may result in PTSD. We also know that effective treatments for PTSD exist, and that it’s possible to steer combat vets who have the condition toward healthy lives.
Today’s military is working to remove the stigma and to encourage service members to seek treatment.
Symptoms of PTSD can start soon after a traumatic event, but sometimes don’t begin until months or even years after. They fall into four general groups:
- Re-living the event through bad memories, nightmares, or flashbacks. Sometimes a sight or a sound — a car backfiring or fireworks — brings back the event.
- Avoiding situations or people that remind you of the event. Some people may try to stay busy all of the time in order to avoid thinking about what happened.
- Numbness. Some people find it hard to talk about feelings, or find that the loving feelings they once had are now diminished.
- Feeling keyed up. This is sometimes called “hyperarousal” or “hypervigilance.” It means feeling constantly on the lookout for danger. It can make you feel quick to become angry and startle easily. It can also affect sleep.
If symptoms last longer than four weeks, cause you great distress, or interfere with your personal or work life, it is important to talk with a doctor about PTSD and treatment.
Aging and PTSD Symptoms
Some combat veterans find that they have PTSD symptoms many years after their war experience, or that they somehow feel more aware of the symptoms as they grow older. This may be because retirement provides them with fewer distractions from their memories. Having medical concerns and feeling less strong than they once were can also increase symptoms for some combat veterans.
There are effective treatments for PTSD. Cognitive behavioral therapy, also called “CBT,” is helpful to many people. Another kind of therapy, called eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, or “EMDR,” also helps many people. Medications can be effective, too.
It’s important to get help for symptoms of PTSD. Talk with your doctor, or encourage your friend or loved one to talk with a doctor.
Members of US Family Health Plan can self-refer for mental-health services from network providers. Call 1.800.208.9565 for names of network providers. Be sure to tell them you are a US Family Health Plan member.