Whether in the military or as a civilian, at some point during our lives many of us will experience a traumatic event that will challenge our view of the world or ourselves. Depending upon a range of factors, some people’s reactions may last for just a short period of time, while others may experience more long-lasting effects.
Why some people are affected more than others has no simple answer. In Canada, it is estimated that up to 10% of war zone Veterans—including war-service Veterans and peacekeeping forces—will go on to experience a chronic condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while others may experience at least some of the symptoms associated with this condition.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a psychological response to the experience of intense traumatic events, particularly those that threaten life. It can affect people of any age, culture or gender. Although we have started to hear a lot more about it in recent years, the condition has been known to exist at least since the times of ancient Greece and has been called by many different names. In the American Civil War, it was referred to as “soldier’s heart;” in the First World War, it was called “shell shock” and in the Second World War, it was known as “war neurosis.” Many soldiers were labelled as having “combat fatigue” when experiencing symptoms associated with PTSD during combat. In the Vietnam War, this became known as a “combat stress reaction.” Some of these people continued on to develop what became known, in 1980, as
post-traumatic stress disorder.
Traumatic stress can be seen as part of a normal human response to intense experiences. In the majority of people, the symptoms reduce or disappear over the first few months, particularly with the help of caring family members and friends. In a significant minority, however, the symptoms do not seem to resolve quickly and, in some cases, may continue to cause problems for the rest of the person’s life. It is also common for symptoms to vary in intensity over time. Some people go for long periods without any significant problems, only to relapse when they have to deal with other major life stress. In rare cases, the symptoms may not appear for months, or even years, after the trauma.
What is a traumatic event?
Trauma is a very personal thing. What traumatizes one person can be of less significance to others. This variation in peoples’ reactions occurs because of their individual personality, beliefs, personal values, and previous experiences (especially of other traumatic events in their life). It also occurs because each person’s experience of the incident is unique. However, in all cases the individual has experienced a threatening event that has caused him or her to respond with intense fear, helplessness, or horror.
For military Veterans, the trauma may relate to direct combat duties, being in a dangerous war zone, or taking part in peacekeeping missions under difficult and stressful conditions. For civilians, the trauma can stem from either man-made events (such as physical or sexual assault, accidents, and witnessing the death or injury of others) or natural disasters (such as fires, earthquakes, floods, and ice storms). There are no hard and fast rules to define trauma.
Common symptoms of PTSD
PTSD is characterized by three main groups of problems. They can be classified under the headings of intrusive, avoidance and arousal symptoms.
Memories, images, smells, sounds, and feelings of the traumatic event can “intrude” into the lives of individuals with PTSD. Sufferers may remain so captured by the memory of past horror that they have difficulty paying attention to the present. People with PTSD report frequent, distressing memories of the event that they wish they did not have. They may have nightmares of the event or other frightening themes. Movement, excessive sweating, and sometimes even acting out the dream while still asleep may accompany these nightmares. They sometimes feel as though the events were happening again; this is referred to as “flashbacks” or “reliving” the event. They may become distressed, or experience physical signs such as sweating, increased heart rate, and muscle tension when things happen which remind them of the incident. Overall, these “intrusive” symptoms cause intense distress and can result in other emotions such as grief, guilt, fear or anger.
Intrusive symptoms of PTSD:
- Distressing memories or images of the incident
- Nightmares of the event or other frightening themes
- Flashbacks (reliving the event)
- Becoming upset when reminded of the incident
- Physical symptoms, such as sweating, increased heart rate, or muscle tension when reminded of the event
Memories and reminders of traumatic events are very unpleasant and usually lead to considerable distress. Therefore, people with PTSD often avoid situations, people, or events that may remind them of the trauma. They often try not to think about, or talk about, what happened, and attempt to cut themselves off from the painful feelings associated with the memories. In their attempts to do this, they often withdraw from family, friends, and society and begin to do less and less. This may help them to shut out the painful memories, but it can also lead to a feeling of not belonging to the rest of society and no longer taking part in activities they used to enjoy. In this way the person can become “numb” to their surroundings and not experience normal everyday emotions such as love and joy, even toward those close to them. Such reactions can lead to depression, feelings of isolation and problems within the family. They can also lead to severe problems with motivation– people with PTSD often find it hard to make decisions and get themselves going. They may have difficulty making the effort to help themselves or even to do things that they would previously have found enjoyable or easy. This can be very hard for family and friends, who often think that the sufferer is just being lazy or difficult.