Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental health condition that can have significant impacts on your quality of life. It can affect anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape. Veterans are at an especially high risk of PTSD after returning home. If you’re suffering from PTSD, it is treatable – but it’s important to seek help.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety. You may have uncontrollable thoughts about the event. In some cases, these symptoms can be so severe and persistent that they significantly impair a person’s daily life.
It’s important to understand that PTSD is not a sign of weakness or a character flaw. It’s a very normal, albeit distressing, response to abnormal events.
While PTSD can affect anyone who has experienced a traumatic event, veterans are at an especially high risk of PTSD. They often witness and endure extreme traumatic events as part of their service.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that occurs in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.
It’s more than just feeling upset or scared after a disturbing incident. It’s a chronic, pervasive condition marked by intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to the traumatic event. These thoughts and feelings persist long after the event.
These may include feelings of fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame. You may also feel detached or estranged from others, lose interest in activities you once enjoyed, or have trouble experiencing positive emotions.
Many veterans with PTSD have intrusive thoughts or memories of the traumatic event. Flashbacks and nightmares are also common, and it may lead many veterans to avoid situations that remind them of the traumatic event.
PTSD can interfere with your ability to go about your daily activities. It can also lead to self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast, and can affect your ability to maintain close relationships.
The Prevalence of PTSD in Veterans
While anyone can develop PTSD, veterans are particularly at risk because of their experiences during military service. Veterans are often exposed to life-threatening situations, witness the death or injury of fellow service members, and may have to kill or wound others in the line of duty.
The prevalence of PTSD in veterans varies depending on the conflict in which they served. It’s estimated that 15% of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom), 14% of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans, and 5% of Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in a given year.
Veterans with PTSD often have other mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, and are at increased risk for suicide.
If you are experiencing thoughts of harming yourself or others or committing suicide, seek help immediately. The military crisis line is available to all service members of all branches, active duty or veterans, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You do not have to have VA benefits to call the military crisis line.
Risk Factors for PTSD in Veterans
Not all veterans who experience trauma develop PTSD. Various factors can increase a veteran’s risk of developing the disorder.
These include experiencing intense or long-lasting trauma, having experienced other trauma earlier in life, such as childhood abuse, experiencing military combat, and having mental health problems or substance misuse problems.
Personal factors, such as the veteran’s age, gender, race, and socioeconomic status, can also influence the risk of developing PTSD. For example, female veterans may be at higher risk for PTSD than their male counterparts due to experiences of military sexual trauma.
A family history of mental health problems can also increase risk. If you have a family history of anxiety or depression, you may be more likely to develop PTSD.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of PTSD in Veterans
The symptoms of PTSD can vary widely between individuals but generally fall into four categories:
- Intrusive memories include recurring, unwanted, distressing memories of the traumatic event, flashbacks, or upsetting dreams about the traumatic event.
- Avoidance symptoms include trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event or avoiding places, activities, or people that remind the veteran of the traumatic event.
- Negative changes in thinking and mood may include negative thoughts about oneself or the world, feelings of hopelessness, memory problems, and difficulty maintaining close relationships.
- Changes in physical and emotional reactions can include being easily startled, having trouble sleeping, having trouble concentrating, being irritable, and engaging in self-destructive behavior.
For a diagnosis of PTSD, veterans must have been exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. They must also exhibit symptoms from each of the four symptom clusters, and these symptoms must last for more than a month and cause significant distress or functional impairment.
Effects of PTSD on Veterans’ Health and Lifestyle
PTSD can have a significant impact on your health and lifestyle. It can lead to physical health problems, such as chronic pain, heart disease, and gastrointestinal problems. It can also lead to mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
Veterans with PTSD may have trouble sleeping, concentrating, and interacting with others. You may avoid social situations, lose interest in activities you once enjoyed, and have difficulty maintaining employment.
PTSD can also strain your relationships with family and friends. This can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness for the veteran and their loved ones.
Treatment Options for Veterans with PTSD
If you’re suffering from PTSD, know that effective treatment is available. Various treatment options can help manage symptoms, improve quality of life, and bring about recovery.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is a common treatment for PTSD. Cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure therapy are two types of psychotherapy that have been found particularly effective for PTSD. These therapies help veterans learn new ways of thinking and behaving and change how they react to stressful memories.
Medication may also be an effective treatment for PTSD. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are types of antidepressant medications that can help manage the symptoms of PTSD.
In addition to these treatments, complementary and alternative treatments, such as yoga, meditation, and acupuncture, may also be beneficial for some veterans suffering from PTSD.
Coping Strategies for Veterans Suffering from PTSD
Self-care activities are not a substitute for effective PTSD treatment, but these simple lifestyle changes can go a long way. This includes eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and practicing good sleep habits.
Connecting with others can also be beneficial. Spending time with supportive family members and friends, joining a support group for veterans with PTSD, or volunteering in the community are all great ways to meet others.
Stress management techniques, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga, can also
Resources and Support for Veterans with PTSD
Fortunately, there are numerous resources available for veterans with PTSD. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers several services for veterans with PTSD, including mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, and readjustment counseling.
In addition to these resources, online resources can also be valuable. Websites like ptsd.va.gov provide comprehensive information about PTSD, including how to recognize it, how to get help, and how to support loved ones with PTSD.
Conclusion: The Future of PTSD Treatment for Veterans
The key to managing PTSD is early recognition and treatment. If you think you might have PTSD, reach out to a mental health professional or a trusted loved one for help. With the right treatment and support, you can recover and lead a fulfilling life.
Remember, it’s not a sign of weakness to seek help for mental health problems. It’s a sign of strength. If you or a loved one is a veteran suffering from PTSD, you’re not alone, and help is available.
Author: Kate Byrd PharmD, is a medical writer who received her doctorate in pharmacy from UCSF. With 15 years of experience as a community pharmacist, she now enjoys creating reliable and engaging content.