For the City Times
By State Senator Julie Lassa
Soldiers have always faced challenges dealing with traumatic memories of their battlefield experience.
In the past, terms like “shell shock” or “war neurosis” were used to describe the condition of some soldiers who were traumatized by combat, but these labels did little to help understand the condition or how to help veterans who had it. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, was created to describe the symptoms that many Vietnam War veterans were experiencing.
Today, we understand a lot more about how PTSD occurs, and what can be done to help veterans not only control its symptoms but to be fully cured. The U.S. Senate has declared June 27, 2016, PTSD Awareness Day, and a number of veterans organizations are using the entire month of June to help raise awareness of what PTSD is and to let everyone touched by this syndrome know that effective help is available.
To understand PTSD, it helps to know how the human brain processes memories. During a normal experience, the part of our brain responsible for emotion and memory, the limbic system, communicates with the part of our brain that makes sense of our experience, the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex analyses what’s happening, and creates a mental narrative to describe the experience, a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. However, during a traumatic experience, such as the fear of immanent death, the limbic system may fail to communicate with the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system retains the memory of the traumatic event, but the prefrontal cortex can’t make sense of it, or place it in the past.
Some people with PTSD can’t remember their experience at all, until something triggers a flashback. This can result in the horror of the traumatic event being experienced over and over again, as if it is still happening. PTSD sufferers can find themselves suddenly in terror for their lives without knowing why; they may have flashbacks of fragments of their traumatic experience; they may explode in rage or shut down emotionally. They may have nightmares or chronic headaches. As they experience their trauma again and again, they may become hyper-vigilant, fixated on avoiding the sights, sounds, or smells that trigger an episode. They may try to cope with their symptoms by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. And they may pull away from friends and loved ones, convinced that no one can understand what they are going through. Sadly, some may decide that suicide is the only way out.
The key to treating PTSD is to help individuals integrate their traumatic memories so that they can remember what happened, think rationally about it, and place their memories in the past. Various kinds of physical activity such as yoga or animal therapy can help individuals experience mastery over their bodies and connect with other people. Medications can help stabilize the mind and make traumatic memories easier to confront. Talk therapy can gradually help sufferers face their traumatic experiences and process them so the past no longer forces itself into the present.
The Veterans Administration estimates that 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans may return home with PTSD. The good news is that PTSD doesn’t have to be a lifelong sentence; effective help is available. If you or someone you know is experiencing PTSD, the VA’s National Center for PTSD (www.ptsd.va.gov) will explain more about the condition, help you find treatment, and provide friends and family members with coping resources. This information is also useful for non-veterans with PTSD, such as rape victims, victims of childhood sexual assault, and accident victims.
We now know that traumatic memories can be just as debilitating as any other battlefield wound. We owe veterans who faced peril to preserve our freedom the best possible care for all their injuries, including the invisible ones like PTSD.