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PTSD and Military Service: How Combat Can Affect Your Mental Health

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — June 12, 2019 — 3 min read
The emotional struggles observed in the past in men returning from war, once referred to as “shell shock,” are the foundation for what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Military personnel on the front lines are routinely exposed to life-threatening events and are at risk for developing PTSD. Some soldiers – such as prisoners of war – are exposed to extended periods of extreme stress. The purpose and politics surrounding the war, its location, and the nature of the enemy are factors that impact the stress of combat.

Approximately 11 to 20 percent of the veterans of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom are diagnosed with PTSD in a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). About 30 percent of individuals who have experienced any type of traumatic event have experienced PTSD in their lifetime.

For veterans, PTSD is now in a category of mental health disorders called, “Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders.” It was taken out of the Anxiety Disorders category.  

According to the National Center for PTSD, the symptoms of PTSD fall into four main categories:
  • Unwanted reliving of the traumatic event
  • Avoidance of reminders of the event
  • Negative changes in beliefs and feelings about oneself, others, and the world
  • Hypervigilance
 Individuals with PTSD may experience other psychiatric disorders, such as depression and substance use disorder. As is the case with many mental health diagnoses, the risk of disruption to the veteran’s marriage, work, and social life can be significant.

PTSD affects each person differently. Some may completely recover with treatment while others may develop a persistent mental disorder that is severely and chronically incapacitating. Veterans may also experience delayed, chronic and intermittent PTSD.

The VA and the Department of Defense recommend the use of trauma-focused psychotherapies or specific types of antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, SSRIs, and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, SNRIs) for treatment of PTSD.

The National Center for PTSD recommends the following strategies to address core needs:
  • Focus on daily routines
  • Break problems into manageable tasks and create simple steps toward achieving your solution
  • Engage in positive, healthy or meaningful activities, even if they are small, simple actions
  • Helping others can help you stay focused on something positive and build relationships
  • Look for positive coping strategies that help you manage your emotions. Examples: listen to music, exercise, practice breathing routines, talk with others, spend time in nature, etc.
  • Spend time with people who give you a sense of security, calm, or happiness
  • Try to change from negative to helpful thinking. Are your thoughts that are persistent and intrusive helpful to you right now? Try reframing or diverting your attention by practicing simple strategies like focusing on something or someone else in your life, finding ways to accept what has happened, praying, or practicing mindfulness
  • Find meaningful ways to honor those who have suffered or who were lost
When to Get Professional Help
The VA has a PTSD Treatment Decision Aid to help veterans and others decide on the best treatment for their symptoms. Access this tool here. If you continue to experience symptoms of acute stress, it is time to seek professional help. As bad as PTSD feels, there are scientifically proven methods to treat it. The first step is to talk to your provider about the symptoms you are experiencing.

You can also call the Cardinal Innovations Access Line at 1-800-939-5911. This line operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Psychologist Dawn O’Malley contributed to this article.
Take an online, confidential screening for PTSD
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