Coping with PTSD

John is sitting at his office desk. He is participating in a conference call with colleagues at another location. Suddenly, he starts to feel dizzy and nauseous. His head begins to ache and his heart beats rapidly. John believes he is having a heart attack. He excuses himself from the phone call. Putting his head on his desk, he sees a bomb exploding and body parts scattered around him. John thinks he is going crazy and looks at the calendar and sees the number 15. Then, John realizes that it is one year since his last mission in Iraq: December 15, 2010.

John is one of an estimated 5.2 million American adults who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.

John was stationed in a small town in Southern Iraq in 2010 and was responsible for clearing the road of mines for his platoon to enter the town. Going into the town was not a problem. John was relieved that he and his friends were safe and ready to return to the base. As the caravan exited the town and returned to the dusty road, John felt the entire road go up and then down. Looking behind him, John saw the last two tanks engulfed in flames. John felt his feet running as fast as they could go. What John saw next would be forever etched in his mind.

Many people with PTSD repeatedly re-experience the ordeal in the form of flashback episodes, memories, nightmares, or frightening thoughts. Anniversaries of the event can also trigger symptoms. People with PTSD also experience emotional numbness and sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety, and irritability or outbursts of anger. Feelings of intense guilt are also common. Most people with PTSD try to avoid any reminders or thoughts of the ordeal. PTSD is diagnosed when symptoms last more than one month. Physical symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal distress, dizziness, and chest pain are common in people with PTSD.

Looking into what remained of the tank, John saw the driver, his friend Mike, blackened and nearly unrecognizable. But, where was his best friend Petey? Slowly peering past Mike, John saw a body with arms tangled and missing a head. John again felt himself running back to the road, looking for Petey’s head. He saw a growing crowd surrounding his caravan. John knew he had to act quickly to retrieve what remained of his friend, who he knew since kindergarten. John and Petey met each other on the playground, when John had fallen off the gigantic slide. John remembers that Petey had come to his aide, and stayed with him until their teacher, Mrs. Walsh, could get the nurse to come to the playground. From that day on, John and Petey made a pact to always be there for each other. John contacted his superior who ordered him to stay with his platoon until a backup could be dispensed. With an angry mob throwing rocks and epithets at him and his surviving friends, John waited 12 hours to be relieved of his duty. John remained in Iraq for one more month, and then received a discharge to come back home.

About 30 percent of Vietnam veterans developed PTSD at some point after the war. The disorder also has been detected among veterans of the Persian Gulf War, with some estimates running as high as 8 percent. Statistics for the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars have not been cumulated yet. But, clearly there are many veterans who will suffer from PTSD.

PTSD can be extremely debilitating. Fortunately, research has led to the development of treatments to help people with this disorder. Studies have demonstrated the efficacy of cognitive-behavioral therapy, individual and group psychotherapy. Other research shows that giving people an opportunity to talk about their experiences very soon after a catastrophic event may reduce some of the symptoms of PTSD.

John is currently meeting individually with a psychotherapist once a week and is participating in a support group with other Iraq War veterans. This therapy gives John an opportuntiy to talk about his war experiences and express feelings of anger, sadness, and guilt. He is beginning to feel better and more optimistic about his life. John recently learned that his wife Abby is pregnant and is expected to give birth during the fall. John knows one thing for certain — if they have a baby boy, his name will be Petey.