Helping Heal Invisible Wounds
Many of our military personnel returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been traumatized by their experiences in the war zones. While the majority struggle with their experiences, most will not go on to develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that develops as a result of a traumatic experience and involves symptoms of vigilance (i.e., being extra alert and aware of surroundings); numbness (i.e., having difficulty feeling emotions), and re-experiencing (i.e., flashbacks and nightmares).
We have evidence-based treatments for PTSD that work. These include behavioural therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy or exposure therapy and medication therapies. Treatments have demonstrated success, yet there is no cure for PTSD. Many individuals in treatment work through their symptoms so that they are no longer severely impacted by them. Yet, symptoms sometimes flare up again in the future.
We have institutions set up to work with returning military personnel to treat their PTSD. Much of my work deals with individuals who have had difficulty accessing treatment and working with the institutions designed to help them. Some of the difficulties are self-imposed (For example, it can be hard to admit that you are struggling and need help. It can be even harder to admit that someone who was never at war could help with symptoms developed in war.) Some of the difficulties accessing care are about the system.
Having difficulty accessing help does not help our military personnel in need.
Yet, in my work, I'm starting to hear a new theme.
Here are some reasons why dogs might help individuals with PTSD
- Dogs are vigilant. Anyone who has ever had a nightmare knows that a dog in the room provides information. They immediately let you know if you are really in immediate danger or if you have just had a nightmare. This extra layer of vigilance mimics the buddy system in the military. No soldier or grunt or sailor is ever alone in the battlefield. The same is true when you have a dog by your side. You are not alone. You can ease your mind searching for data in the environment because you know the dog is doing it for you
- Dogs are protective. Just like the buddy system in the military. Someone is there to watch your back.
- Dogs respond well to authoritative relationships. Many military personnel return from their deployments and have difficulty functioning in their relationships. They are used to giving and getting orders. This usually doesn't work well in the typical American home, and I've talked to many servicemen and women who have been told to knock that off once they got home. Well, dogs love it.
- Dogs love unconditionally. Many military personnel return from their deployments and have difficulty adjusting to the civilian world. Sometimes they realize that the skills they learned and used in the service weren't transferable or respected in the civilian sector. This can be devastating when they were well-respected for their position in the military. Dogs don't play any of these games. They just love.
- Dogs help relearn trust. Trust is a big issue in PTSD. It can be very difficult to feel safe in the world after certain experiences, and being able to trust the immediate environment can take some time. Dogs help heal by being trustworthy.
- Dogs help to remember feelings of love. The world can look pretty convoluted after war. I spoke to a Veteran recently who bought a puppy. He didn't want the puppy sleeping on his bed so he bought his puppy an expensive puppy bed. He was thrilled to introduce the bed to his new puppy and was outraged when the puppy ate it. He yelled at the puppy and disciplined him. He then told me that he sat down feeling miserable about yelling at the puppy and his puppy eating the bed. His puppy came up beside him and licked his face. He turned and looked at the puppy and said, "What are you licking me for? I am mad at you!" The puppy wagged his tail and licked him again. And he felt love.
The best part is that it doesn't seem to matter if the dog is a Pit bull or a Chihuahua or a plain old mutt
Tracy Stecker, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the Psychiatric Research Center in the Department of Community and Family Medicine at Dartmouth Medical School and at the White River Junction VA. Dr. Stecker is a psychologist and mental health services researcher who focuses on help-seeking behaviour in individuals with mental illness. She has received funding from NIMH to develop and test cognitive-behavioural interventions to increase mental health treatment seeking among Veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, focusing on those with symptoms of PTSD and suicidality. She has also received funding to assess whether these interventions increase addiction treatment attendance among individuals with alcohol use disorders through NIAAA. Her book, Five Survivors: Personal Stories of Healing from PTSD and Traumatic Events