Facing fear: how war veterans overcome PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder - these words seem to be louder than thunder for those who live through the horrors of war in real time. The soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine face traumatic events every day, experiencing powerful emotional stress and physical pain. And most often they return from the battlefield not only physically wounded, but also psychologically depressed.
Obsessive thoughts, nightmares, depression and anger, problems in relationships with loved ones, alcoholism and drug addiction: PTSD patients can only return to normal life with the help of special therapy and professional psychologists. Is our country ready for this? What does international experience tell us? How did war veterans who survived several wars cope with PTSD?
Hit, run, freeze!
"Fight, run, freeze!" is how our psyche reacts in stressful situations, switching from active chaotic actions to running and denying reality. Although nature endowed our psyche with defense mechanisms in stressful situations, it did not foresee the brutal reality that opens up on the battlefield.
The loss of loved ones and property, frequent relocations and adaptation: since the outbreak of full-scale war in Ukraine, most Ukrainians have been at risk of developing PTSD. But war veterans suffer the most from it. American psychologists and scientists have studied PTSD on the example of war veterans who fought in the wars in Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Vietnam and Korea, as well as World War II.
The risk of post-traumatic stress disorder in war veterans is three times higher than in civilians. The level of PTSD is influenced by the country's war-related policies, the location of the war, and the type of enemy faced.
Another common cause of PTSD, according to scientists , ismilitary sexual trauma. This is any sexual harassment or violence that occurred during military service.
Sudden powerful emotional reactions to simple things, feelings of anger, irritation and depression, insomnia, depression, alcohol and drug problems, psychological problems in relationships with loved ones and others are the most common signs of PTSD. A person cannot overcome such symptoms on their own. Only with the help of professional psychologists and special drug therapy can patients with PTSD return to normal life.
A game of hide and seek: the mysterious PTSD
Within a few weeks or months after experiencing psychological trauma, contusions, and shock, most people begin to feel better. If, even after a considerable period of time, a person is still depressed and anxious, he or she may have post-traumatic stress disorder.
The uniqueness of PTSD is that everyone experiences it differently. Sometimes symptoms can appear several months or even years after the event. And there are cases when they can periodically appear and disappear for several years ," psychologistssay.
"There are 3 main types of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: unwanted memories and nightmares, negative emotions and feelings, and feeling on the edge. The patient may struggle with unpleasant memories of the event or horrors. These memories may seem too real and frightening. For some people, the experience is so vivid that it seems like the event is happening over and over again. This is called a flashback.
U.S. Army Major Joshua Brandon, who participated in the Iraq War in 2023, shares his experience:
"I remember driving in Tennessee, and behind someone's house I saw a pit for burning waste. And for a good 2 minutes, I was probably back in Iraq. My adrenaline was going through the roof."
Avoid anything that reminds you of the event
Psychologists who work with PTSD patients who have survived the war recommend that for therapeutic purposes, they first avoid certain people and any situations that remind them of the trauma and military operations. Doctors also say that a person with PTSD may have more negative thoughts and feelings than before the event.
"I started avoiding people. I avoided even my friends with whom I went to Iraq for quite a long time, because I knew that if I started talking to them, I would remember what happened again," recalls Iraq war veteran Valerie Ovalle.
Sometimes veterans struggle with feelings of shame or guilt related to the traumatic event. For example, some people may worry that they could have done more to help others or prevent the event.
A person with PTSD often feels sad, losing interest in life or in things they used to enjoy, such as socializing with friends and family, day after day. It may be difficult for them to feel or express happiness and other positive emotions. Sergeant Edward Baldisari, a veteran of the Vietnam War (1965-1969), shares:
"I thought I was a stranger. I had no friends. All my relationships were over. I drank like a fool. I had no hobbies. Everything I liked just disappeared... And so it went on for years.
"Don't wait until you feel ready": PTSD therapy
People with post-traumatic stress disorder often feel tense, as if they find it difficult to relax. The feeling that you are always on high alert prevents you from sleeping or concentrating on the things you need to do every day.
The most effective treatment for PTSD is trauma-focused therapy, psychologists say. Focusing on your memories may seem shocking, but reliving the trauma with the help of a professional can have a powerful therapeutic effect.
American clinical psychologist Ron Achierno has been working with war veterans with PTSD for many years. He notes that most patients are waiting for the time "when they are ready for treatment. However, this moment will never come," the doctor notes.
"If you feel pain, you are ready for treatment. If you cannot do what you did before you served your country, you are ready for treatment. If your freedom has been oppressed or restricted because you fought for freedom, you are ready for treatment. Don't wait until you feel ready."
Along with long-term psychological care, medication therapy with antidepressants is also recommended for patients with PTSD. Psychotropic medications help to increase the level of chemicals in the brain, making patients feel much better. To overcome PTSD, medical cannabis is also recommended, which, unlike antidepressants, has no pronounced side effects.
Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are severely injured and suffer severe psychological shocks every day, risking their lives and health for the sake of our freedom. Is Ukraine ready to rehabilitate war veterans with PTSD? We do not know how long the war will last. It is still unpredictable. But one thing is clear - something will happen next, and it is time to think about the future today.