June is PTSD Awareness Month, in this blog post we will discuss how it affects veterans and civilians alike. We spoke to Michelle Saunders, a veteran who helps others recover from the disorder and assimilate back into the communities they serve.
Michelle Saunders served ten years as a Non-Commissioned Officer in the United States Army. She was combat-medically retired after injuries she sustained in during her time in Iraq. Michelle shares advice for friends and family members of people suffering from PTSD. She also lists some resources available to veterans and their families, which you can find at the end of this blog post. Continue reading for our interview with Michelle below.
Roughly 70% of adults have gone through a traumatic event in their lives that has caused them stress after the event, whether it's combat, a car accident or the loss of a family member. Of these cases, 20% will develop into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Post-traumatic stress becomes a disorder when it begins to impair your ability to function in everyday life. Anyone that suffers from post-traumatic stress and does not properly process their feelings about it could develop PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress is not limited to veterans, but it is more common for them because of the constant heightened state of vigilance that combat requires. Soldiers typically don’t have time to compartmentalize events they went through or to decompress from incredibly stressful life-or-death situations. Without that time, negative feelings can be suppressed, which can lead to various mental and emotional difficulties down the road.
One of the most common symptoms of PTSD is night terrors; which are nightmares that individuals cannot wake up from easily. When they eventually do wake up, they are often disoriented and unsure of where they are. Another common symptom of PTSD is flashbacks, which are triggered by things in the world around us. Any smell, sight, sound or situation that reminds someone of the event they endured can bring back the emotions from the event. One of the most important steps to take in recovery is to recognize and acknowledge your triggers, then take steps to overcome them.
Michelle mentioned an example of a common flashback trigger for veterans. When driving a military vehicle, standard procedure is to exit tunnels on the opposite side of the road to lessen the chance of an attack. After Michelle returned from active duty, she told us that she experienced feelings of anxiety driving in tunnels. Some veterans have similar negative reactions to trash on the side of the road, because they learned in training that trash could be an explosive device.
For many veterans, one of the more difficult parts about transitioning home is that they no longer have the safety net of shared experiences that they had with other soldiers. Shared experiences allow for the individuals to have a built-in network where they can talk about experiences in a safe place. It can be hard for a veteran to open up to civilians for that same reason.
Primary care physicians, psychiatrists and other clinicians can all offer help to anyone suffering from PTSD. Like other illnesses, there are many treatment options available. There are different types of behavioral therapy and medications designed to address the causes and symptoms of the disorder. If you have questions about PTSD, ask your doctor or nurse at your next appointment, or give them a call.
It's important to know that if you are trying to help someone with PTSD, it may not be easy at first. It isn’t that the person doesn’t trust you, veterans may feel that they are protecting their families and friends by keeping their experiences and emotions bottled up inside. As a family member or a friend, your job is to educate yourself about what your loved one is going through and be there for them.
Michelle emphasized that just letting your friend or family member know you are there to listen goes a long way toward helping that person recover. Because every person is different, they will assimilate at their own pace. Talking with people about traumatic events is difficult and can exacerbate symptoms resulting from their experience, remember they may take a step backward before things get better.
The final objective for people suffering from PTSD is to normalize the conversation about post-traumatic stress and provide safe environments where people can talk to others about their experiences without feeling threatened or patronized.
The VA Crisis Hotline is available for veterans who need to talk to someone. 1 (800) 273-8255 is the number to call with any questions or problems you may have. You can also text 838255 or click here to start a confidential chat with a veteran online.
For more information about diagnosing PTSD, checking your military benefits or other helpful tips, visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website.
Real Warriors offers an article with five tips to support veterans with a PTSD diagnosis.
Make the Connection has hundreds of videos that tell the stories of veterans who have recovered from PTSD and the advice they share.
Operation We Are Here is a hub of many different resources designed to help veterans and their families after a PTSD diagnosis.
First responders are also a valuable resource for those who might not have access to family or friends that they can share their experiences with.
All of us at Nizhoni Health want to thank Michelle and those like her that have dedicated their lives to helping people recover from PTSD, whether they served in the military or not. The more people that are available to help and are informed about PTSD, the greater the chance for recovery for those who are affected.