Protecting yourself from PTSD
Combat-related PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is a very real issue for some of the people we’ve been closest to through our military careers – as such, we encourage you to take 3-4 minutes to read this to the end.
We’ll explore what PTSD is, dispel some myths – and let you know some practical ways that will help you to reduce the impact that PTSD can have on your life.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a type of anxiety condition that can develop after any traumatic event. It’s commonly associated with military personnel – a fact that stems from the condition initially being recognised in troops returning from WWI in 1917 and coined ‘shell shock’ by an UK Army Medical Officer.
While this early diagnosis speculated that exploding shells caused nerve damage, modern psychological medical advances have led to the understanding that it is a person’s mental health that is the root of the issue, not a physical injury.
Nowadays, PTSD isn’t just diagnosed in military personnel – but is seen in people who have experienced anything that causes severe psychological stress.
In essence, PTSD is the brain’s way of making a person hyper-aware – a psychological acknowledgement or reminder that bad things can happen, do happen and might happen again.
MOD support for PTSD
Although virtually all ex-service personnel who experience PTSD do so because of circumstances that occurred during their time serving, the MOD’s support for people who suffer with the condition is often considered very limited.
While there are many possible reasons for this – one of the most significant relates to how PTSD presents in people who suffer with the condition. PTSD often has a ‘delayed-onset’ – meaning that symptoms can take anything from hours to decades to come to light – and often don’t fully present until a person has left or is medically discharged from service.
While PTSD can be an extremely complex condition – there are some facts that do not require any medical qualification to understand:
PTSD is not someone dwelling on the past. Nor is it a weakness or a condition someone has opted to “give in to”. Telling someone to “get over it” or “pull themselves together” is akin to telling someone to “get on” with a game of football with a broken leg.
There is no one way that a person with PTSD’s condition will present, so stereotyping can be unhelpful and lead to people missing important signs.
PTSD symptoms are extremely varied, but might feel or look like a person is:
- short tempered
- easily upset
- engaging in self-destructive behaviour
When explored in more detail, these behaviours can occur because the person is:
- having flashbacks that cause them to relive the trauma
- feeling, seeing, hearing or smelling things that remind them of the trauma
- losing sleep because of an inability to rest or relax
- experiencing physical reminders of the event (pain, a particular temperature, sweating, etc)
- having intrusive thoughts, voices or images that remind them of the event
It’s not just ‘active’ feelings that PTSD sufferers experience though. Some people explain that they feel the world has changed after trauma – finding it difficult to trust others, feeling like it is impossible to find a place they feel safe, losing any feeling of care or love for others or feeling detached from the rest of the world.
People who explain their feelings around PTSD also often describe believing that trauma occurred because of them – and harbour extreme feelings of guilt, sadness, shame and anger as a result.
PTSD and unhealthy coping strategies
In an effort to treat the symptoms of PTSD it is not uncommon for a person to turn to unhealthy coping strategies. Excessive drinking, recreational drug use or even the thrill of gambling can provide short-term respite from symptoms – but often makes the problem worse in the long-term.
Effectively, these are all ways a person might ‘medicate’ themselves to help with coping – and are often some of the major factors that see staggering numbers of ex-service personnel sleeping on the streets, homeless.
Of course, these behaviours don’t always occur – but they could be a sign that someone is suffering in silence or unable to talk about their experience or condition.
You are not alone
If there is only one message taken away from reading this, it’s as follows:
- If you are suffering with PTSD you are not alone – if you are supporting a loved one with PTSD you are not alone.
- Being in a military role doesn’t mean you will get PTSD – but the operations you’ve involved with could increase your chances. Feelings and coping strategies that come when you’re trying to deal with trauma that you’ve experienced don’t make you ‘weird’, ‘weak’ or anything else ‘not normal’ – they make you a human-being who is experiencing an all-too-common illness.
How to cope with PTSD
Before we explore some ways that you may be able to help yourself if you suspect you have PTSD, we’d like to cover an important point:
If you seek medical care you will be taken seriously.
Modern GPs understand that psychological issues can have an enormous toll on a person’s physical well-being and ability to engage with life to its fullest potential. Not only that – but your GP is highly likely to be able to refer you to specialist services set up to support veterans who are struggling with PTSD.
When you talk to medical personnel about your feelings they won’t laugh, the won’t make light of the situation and they won’t automatically prescribe you drugs – there are lots of extremely effective options for helping people with PTSD.
There’s no one ‘fix’ for the things you’ve experienced if you have PTSD – but some of the following strategies might help you understand or ease the experience you’re having.
What pushes your buttons? Feelings are normally triggered by something external. In the same way a smell can take you back to a childhood memory, there can be feelings, noises, interactions, people or situations that take you back to the trauma you have experienced.
It might be difficult, but trying to remember what occurred before you had a flashback or lost yourself to the emotions you’re feeling can give you a big clue as to what ‘triggers’ these feelings now. It might be something obvious, like loud noise or shouting – but then again, it could be something slight, like the way the traffic is moving or how people are behaving.
There’s no right or wrong answer – your brain is complex and makes associations you might not consciously recognise. Perhaps carry a notepad, or make a note on your phone of what happens for you. You might be able to build a picture that starts to makes sense when you look back over it.
Talk to someone
We can’t stress this enough – what you’re feeling isn’t abnormal, no matter how it’s causing you to react. Talking to someone might feel like a big step – but actually, just explaining out loud how what you’re experiencing can be a big help. If possible, find someone you think you can trust who’s likely to just listen.
That person may have already recognised that you’re not quite yourself anyway – and remember, you don’t have to talk to them about the traumatic event – just how you’re feeling now. One step at a time. If you don’t know someone who would listen, consider speaking to someone on a listening or advice line. We’ve listed some helpful numbers at the end of this article.
Are there any local groups?
Although PTSD can make you feel isolated, you’re not the only person who’s experiencing these feelings. Often, there are local groups who can help. They might be dedicated to veterans – or they might be more broad support groups. The people attending these groups aren’t going to laugh or make light of your situation – and they’re normally run by qualified professionals that can point you in the direction of further support too. It’s incredible what sharing your feelings can do. You know the world can be a dangerous place – but it also has a lot of great people who are eager to help.
Look after yourself
You mind and body are very much connected – so eating well, exercising a little and getting a decent amount of rest can help you to get your head in a good place.
Your energy levels and what you eat are closely connected – so watching the amount of sugar, bread and other simple carbohydrates can mean your energy levels through the day are more even, often helping your mood to stay the same. Exercise doesn’t have to be hardcore. To begin with, just some brisk walks for 15-20 minutes are enough to kick-start the bodies production of the hormones that help keep your mood stable – and can even help with getting a decent night’s sleep. Try not to get into the habit of having an alcoholic drink to help you sleep, it can actually reduce the quality of your sleep and lead to further drinking. It’s better to try to wear yourself out physically – but if you’re struggling with this, talking to a doctor can be a big help.
PTSD can be a journey
Unfortunately there’s no ‘quick fix’ button that you can press to reset your brain and immediately start feeling better – instead, putting into practice some of these tips that can make things a little easier and just getting through each day can be a good short term goal. Talking to people can be difficult – whether that’s friends, family or professionals such as doctors and counsellors – but no one expects you to trust them 100% from the start. Building a trusting working relationship takes time, but can be a big help.
There are a number of places you can turn for support, whatever it is you’re feeling or experiencing:
Helpline: 0800 1381 619 (free – 24hrs a day)
Combat Stress provide everything from telephone help to treatment with professionals in centres around the UK. Whether you’re serving, a veteran or the family of someone who’s suffering, Combat Stress can help.
Helpline: 116 123 (free – 24hrs a day)
You don’t have to be suicidal to call the Samaritans, they’re happy to talk anonymously about what you’re feeling, whatever that might be. They can talk about how you’re feeling now and even help you to plan some next steps for seeking help, if you wish.
The SSAFA (The armed forces charity)
Helpline: 0800 731 4880
The SSAFA provide a wide range of services for veterans and their families. They can support you with everything from medical advice, to assistance around housing, money, debt, employment and much more.
Helpline: 0300 302 0551
PTSD Resolution provide a range of services for serving personnel and veterans for everything from transitioning back to civilian work and family life – to support finding a therapist or talking service local to you.
You’re not ‘going mad’, you’re not ‘weird’ and you’re definitely not ‘losing it’. Your body and brain is reacting to things most people will never have to even imagine, let alone face. Help is out there – and you can access it, even if it’s just slowly at first.
You are not alone.