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Happy New Year! I pray that you experienced a joyous Christmas Day and New Year’s celebration. Last week we continued our conversation on the impact of trauma to the warrior. We focused on the psychological effects of trauma. This week we will discuss the effects of trauma on the warrior’s behavior.
Trauma is stress run amuck. As we discussed during our last conversation, trauma changes the warrior. It is not that we are worse, but we are different. Post-traumatic stress or deployment-related stress are normal reactions of normal people to extreme and life threatening events. How a warrior reacts to a threat or stress is part of the human survival response. It is a defense mechanism.
Warriors often experience during a combat deployment intense fear, panic, confusion, helplessness and even horror. How can one return from war feeling anything but changed? Warriors can receive physical and psychological wounds that can incapacitate them. Events can also get past the normal defense mechanisms and severely disrupt our thought processes and our emotions. The changes experienced by the returning veteran are not only physical or psychological. The combat veteran also exhibits emotional and cognitive symptoms.
EMOTIONAL AND COGNITIVE SYMPTOMS OF TRAUMA
The emotional and cognitive symptoms of trauma can create lasting difficulties in the veteran’s life. The symptoms of anxiety are merely an exaggerated stress response.
Some of the emotional responses to trauma;
- explosive anger
- withdrawal from normal routines and relationships
- spontaneous crying
All of these symptoms can be easily observed, most likely because you will be on the receiving end of the behavior. I exhibited many of these symptoms for years following my deployment to Iraq, 2003-2004. I just thought that it was because I was unusually exhausted. But, after my return from Afghanistan in 2012, I still exhibited these symptoms and I realized that there was more to my exaggerated response. On top of these symptoms I also kept several unobserved symptoms close hold.
The following are not so easily observed;
- loss of confidence
- emotional numbness
Each time following my return from war I was not myself, and those around me knew as much. It is important to remember, the returning warrior will not be him or herself, rather they will have very exaggerated emotions.
Some common cognitive responses might be;
- Getting lost or confused – often experience distortions of time and other spatial and temporal relationships (example, a small gun is remembered as being the size of a cannon)
- Cause and effect thinking – certain aspects of the trauma become universalized (example, all people with olive complexions are terrorists)
- Intrusive thoughts about the event – unwanted thoughts or memories of the traumatic event feeling as if the event is re-occurring in the present
- Memory loss – the simple things like names and places are difficult to recall, and the veteran often experiences forgetfulness
- Difficulty concentrating – a difficult time focusing and remaining on the task at hand, feeling distracted
- Difficulty in making decisions – the loss of ability to function well in daily life because the veteran either does not want to or does not know how to decide, or exhibits sluggish thinking
BEHAVIORAL EFFECTS OF TRAUMA
As we have just discussed the emotional and cognitive symptoms of trauma, you will see considerable overlap of symptoms with the emotional effects. There is a direct correlation between the emotional and cognitive effects and the behavioral symptoms.
The following by no means is an exhaustive list, but many are symptoms commonly experienced;
- Sleep disturbance – At night the warrior will have trouble sleeping and often will experience nightmares. During the time when the warrior is awake, they may experience vivid flashbacks of the event. At times these are triggered by something like a smell or sound.
- Hyper-vigilance – On constant alert to possible threats.
- Need to do certain things over and over – This reaction is in response to create order out of the chaos of the traumatic experience and create a sense of being in control.
- Doing strange or risky things – This reaction is usually an attempt to create the rush and excitement that are part of the survival reaction.
- Self-medication – A common way of avoiding painful memories of the horrors of combat is through alcohol or drug use.
- Eating problems – Loss of appetite is often associated with the down side of the trauma curve, but sharp increases in appetite can also occur as the body seeks to replenish its energy reserves.
- Depression – Reflective of the overwhelming power and shock of traumatic events leads the warrior down a path of depression.
- Isolation – Withdrawal is common as senses are overwhelmed and there may be fear and confusion associated with the traumatic stress reaction.
- Lack of motivation – Nothing excites the warrior, does not have the same sense of joy with self, family, job, friends, and activities.
- Agitation – Trauma victims often exhibit nervousness, irritability, and can be prone to bouts of anger.
- Always having to have things a certain way – A method to gain a sense of safety and control of one’s life after a traumatic experience.
- Over working – Burying oneself in one’s work is another way to avoid dealing with trauma by either creating a false sense of control or avoiding the effects of trauma through busyness.
All of these symptoms reflect a dysfunctional pattern that veterans use to deal with their trauma. Many of these symptoms become negative coping methods. Some veterans can recover by themselves. Others are at increased risk for;
- separation and divorce
- feelings of guilt and shame
- substance abuse
- low self-esteem
- panic attacks
- chronic anxiety
- unemployment and homelessness
Some of us think that, “I would never do or experience these things.” However, we can never predict how we will respond under the incredible stress and the threat of harm experienced in war. War brings out the worse in each of us.
What can the veteran do? First, we must be honest to recognize that in order to recover, we may not be able to accomplish this by ourselves. If this is so, then we can reach out for support, direction, coaching, or intervention. Lastly, we must understand that our recovery and healing may be a slow process.
Can the faith community be a part of the healing journey? Well informed and skilled faith community members can be a key partner in the compassion and care for our veterans and their families. This conversation is a part of that process. I look forward to our continued conversation next week…