This Memorial Day as we remember the heroes who have defended and preserved our way of life, we must also remember that honorable service can have negative side effects like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which can occur when someone experiences a shocking, dangerous or potentially life-threating event. The U.S Department of Veterans Affairs states that PTSD is more common among veterans than civilians, although anyone can suffer with it, including EMTs, fire and rescue personnel, victims of domestic and/or child abuse, accidents, assault and many others. The VA says that at some point in their life, seven out of every 100 veterans will have PTSD.
PTSD can also develop in non-dangerous experiences, like the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one or the loss of a home. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms usually begin within three months of the traumatic incident, but sometimes they begin years afterward. Symptoms must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with relationships or work to be considered PTSD. Some people recover within six months, while in other it can become chronic.
To be diagnosed with PTSD, an adult must have all of the following for at least one month: at least one re-experiencing symptom, at least one avoidance symptom, at least two arousal and reactivity symptoms, and at least two cognition and mood symptoms. Re-experiencing symptoms include flashbacks of the trauma often with physical symptoms like panting, rapid heartbeat or sweating, nightmares and dark thoughts. They are sensitive to triggers that may seem commonplace like loud noises, violent movies or driving, which can make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping or concentrating or may spiral into more dangerous, aggressive behaviors.
PTSD also occurs in children and teens who have been through trauma. In small children, some symptoms include bedwetting, acting out trauma in playtime, excessive clinginess and refusal to speak.
Gretchen Morgan, LCSW and owner of Lighthouse Counseling & Sand Play Training Center, is an expert in PTSD and shares some of the diagnostics as well as some of the therapies she uses in treating PTSD.
“Trauma and the corresponding physical and mental health impact has existed as long as humans,” Morgan said. “The roots of the formal diagnosis of trauma dates back to veterans returning from World War I who displayed uncontrollable body tremors, confusion, nightmares and exaggerated responses to sensory information who were diagnosed with ‘Shell Shock.’ In 1980, the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was formally recognized. Flash forward to the early 1990s when doctoral candidate Francine Shapiro worked with treatment resistant Vietnam veterans to create a new treatment using eye movement she named Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocess (EMDR) which seemed to eliminate all PTSD symptoms in the veterans. That treatment led to a new understanding of the best way to treat PTSD in both veterans and people in the general. There are now many treatments for PTSD, including EMDR, Sand Play Therapy, Brain Spotting, Trauma Sensitive Yoga, Drama Therapy and others that have been validated though research and patient report.
“Researchers and mental health clinicians now know that most critical component of recovery from PTSD involves integrating both the body and the mind in the treatment plan. A famous psychiatrist named Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, who is widely known as the world’s leading expert in PTSD, wrote a groundbreaking book called, ‘The Body Keeps the Score.’ His research spanned three decades, and he uncovered the key to trauma recovery is self-regulation, which can be strengthened in activities like breathing, yoga and meditation. Traditional ‘talk therapy’ is insufficient in the treatment of trauma and, in some cases, can exacerbate symptoms by reactivating the traumatic memories.
“Personally I believe we are in a Renaissance period in the treatment of PTSD. There is a paradigm shift that has occurred in the field of mental health, and we finally have scientific proof (in the form of brain studies and solid research) that PTSD is not due to a weakness in the individual experiencing symptoms. We have proven that even the strongest people can experience trauma which produces literal physiological changes in the body. It is equally exciting that PTSD treatments are accessible to everyone now and that single-incident traumas can be resolved relatively quickly. It is also incredible that we know people can choose treatments that best fit their lifestyle. Research has shown that things like trauma sensitive yoga and equine-facilitated learning can be as effective as traditional trauma psychotherapy interventions. Additionally, ongoing studies on the use of ketamine in chronic or complex PTSD and initial date is promising. Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic that has hallucinogenic effects, and centers are popping up everywhere. If you are interested in learning about the cutting-edge treatments for PTSD, the 34th annual Boston International Conference is being held in person and online May 17 to 20.”
There is no way to know the exact number of people who have PTSD as many people silently endure the symptoms, but there is hope, help and success.
If you are a veteran or someone who knows a veteran who may be experiencing PTSD, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has many resources at MentalHealth.va.gov/ptsd. You can hear testimonials, learn about treatment options and more. The National Institute on Mental Illness has a free helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org if you are searching for support and resources. They also have virtual meeting and a local support group at Colts Neck Community Church. Morgan and her colleagues, who are all trained in trauma treatment, can be reached at 732-380-1575 or at email@example.com.