Veterans and PTSD are closely interlinked, with 18% of combat veterans affected by post-traumatic stress disorder.
Experiencing trauma is more commonplace than you might imagine. NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Health) reports that 50% of men and 60% of women witness at least one traumatic event at some point in life.
From veterans returning from active combat zones to those experiencing traumatic events on home turf, 8 million people are diagnosed with PTSD each year in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
PTSD and Veterans
PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is a type of anxiety disorder that presents in some people who experience or witness shocking, frightening, or dangerous, events.
Post-traumatic stress disorder has been historically linked with combat veterans. Soldiers returning from active service in World War I witnessed heavy bombing, triggering a condition then known as shell shock. Shell shock was a term coined by returning soldiers to describe the symptoms they experienced in the aftermath.
PTSD can strike anyone at any time, though, from veterans to civilians. An estimated 6% of the U.S. population will have post-traumatic stress disorder at some point in life, according to the VA.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is characterized by vivid and disturbing thoughts after the event has passed. The symptoms of PTSD can dramatically impact daily living, often to the extent that treatment is advisable.
There are several subtypes of PTSD, including:
- Delayed-onset PTSD
- Complex PTSD
- Secondary trauma
- Birth trauma
Everyone experiences post-traumatic stress disorder differently.
The APA (American Psychiatric Association) categorizes PTSD symptoms as follows:
- Arousal or reactive symptoms
- Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event
- Intrusive thoughts
- Negative thoughts
Most people suffering from PTSD experience the following symptoms:
- Avoiding memories of traumatic events
- Recurring dreams
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- Avoiding the place where the trauma happened
Regrettably, many people with undiagnosed PTSD self-medicate these distressing symptoms with alcohol or drugs. Self-medication is an ineffective strategy liable to inflame both issues over time. Additionally, you could develop a co-occurring disorder – addiction with a co-occurring mental health condition like PTSD.
Some veterans develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the immediate aftermath of the trauma. Others find that symptoms do not return for months or years after returning from deployment.
PTSD will develop differently among veterans, but you can expect to experience the following clusters of symptoms:
- Recurrent and intrusive reminders of the event: You may feel like the event is happening again when experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, or distressing thoughts. Reactions can be physical as well as emotional, including shaking, heart palpitations, and panic attacks.
- Changes to mood and thoughts: Feelings of guilt, shame, and fear may persist. You may also start harboring negative thoughts about yourself and the world. Some veterans find their ability to experience positive emotions diminishes.
- Being continually on guard: You may feel jumpy, irritable, and emotionally reactive. Problems with sleeping and focus are commonplace. Many veterans with PTSD enter a state of increased alertness (hypervigilance).
- Avoidance: Many veterans will avoid the people, places, and things associated with the trauma. This can lead to social withdrawal and a loss of interest in everyday activities.
How Common is PTSD in Veterans?
Members of the military are likely to see combat, often exposing them to dangerous and life-threatening situations.
The VA reports the following incidences of veterans with PTSD, according to the era of service:
- Vietnam War: 15% of Vietnam veterans were diagnosed with PTSD, according to the NVVRS (National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study). Most estimates suggest that up to 30% of Vietnam vets experienced post-traumatic stress disorder during their lifetime.
- Iraq Wars: Up to 20% of veterans involved in Iraq operations have PTSD in any given year.
- Gulf War: Estimates suggest that 12% of Desert Storm veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder in any given year.
PTSD in the military can also be triggered by MST (military sexual trauma).
Among war veterans using VA health care:
- 23% of women reported sexual assault while in the military
- 38% of men reported sexual harassment while in the military
- 55% of women reported sexual harassment while in the military
How to Help Veterans with PTSD
If you or a loved one served in the military and has PTSD, the following strategies could prove beneficial:
- Join a support group: PTSD support groups for veterans help you connect with others undergoing similar experiences. Attending meetings can help you to feel less isolated as you learn more about coping with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Learn to manage intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and nightmares: For most veterans with PTSD, flashbacks involve intense auditory and visual memories of active combat. Engaging with a trauma specialist will help you to develop dual awareness. Dual awareness is a mental skill that makes a distinction between your observing self and your experiencing self. This can help you process the trauma more effectively as you understand that the trauma is only happening in your internal emotional reality. When you look to your external environment, this can anchor you in the present, far from the remembered traumatic event.
- Prioritize physical self-care: Over time, the symptoms of PTSD can take a physical toll, from insomnia and anger to problems with concentration and focus. Develop a healthier lifestyle. Eat as many whole foods and as few processed foods as possible. Stay hydrated by drinking small glasses of water throughout the day. Try to get the right quality and quantity of sleep. Avoid self-medicating the symptoms of PTSD with addictive substances. Aim for 30 minutes of brisk aerobic exercise daily.
- Discover how to self-regulate the nervous system: Practice mindfulness, meditation, and breathing exercises (breathwork) to help you to tamp down your body’s arousal system when you are feeling anxious, agitated, or out of control.
- Seek professional PTSD treatment: Working with an experienced PTSD therapist or counselor can help you to fight back against the distressing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) and exposure therapy can be beneficial, as well as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). The best PTSD treatment will be personalized to meet your needs as a veteran.
Art Therapy and PTSD Veterans
Over the past decade, the VA has focused on treating PTSD using the following evidence-based psychotherapy programs:
- PE (prolonged exposure) therapy
- CPT (cognitive processing therapy)
For those who find it challenging to speak directly with a therapist, art therapy can help you to overcome the physical and emotional symptoms caused by PTSD.
PSTD Veterans and Horses
There is little empirical evidence available for the effectiveness of EAT (equine-assisted therapy) for PTSD, and there is no standardized protocol either.
That said, new research suggests that equine therapy could kickstart the healing process for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The small-scale study involved 63 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. More than half of the participants who engaged with horse therapy showed a pronounced reduction in both PTSD and depression.
PTSD Treatment at The District Recovery
For civilians and veterans dealing with PTSD, we can help here at The District Recovery Community.
Our gender-specific rehab programs for mental health conditions like PTSD allow you to focus on your recovery in a comfortable environment free from distractions.
Here at our PTSD treatment center, we’ll help you address the symptoms triggered by witnessing a traumatic event. Through counseling and psychotherapy like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), you’ll empower yourself to live without the continual disruptions caused by PTSD.
For anyone with a co-occurring alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder, we offer dual diagnosis treatment. This allows you to unpack symptoms of addiction and PTSD simultaneously, offering the strongest chance of sustained recovery.
If you’re ready to unshackle yourself from the burden of post-traumatic stress disorder, reach out to TDRC today at 844.287.8506.