Last week I had the privilege of speaking about my experience with PTSD to the Leavenworth, Kansas Point Man Ministries group which I belong to.
Why was it a privilege to speak at Point Man?
It was a privilege to me simply because I am still here to discuss PTSD with others who suffer from it.
In America. we have a national tragedy of 22 Veterans per day on average, taking their own lives as a result of the life complications brought on by PTSD.
What I have learned about PTSD.
Military members are not the only people to experience trauma that can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. But Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guard men and women are often at a higher risk due to the nature of military service. Every person’s circumstances are unique and no two cases are exactly alike. That is true of both symptoms and treatment.
Causes of PTSD vary.
There are several events which can lead to PTSD in the one who is suffering. Witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event is described as the source of PTSD symptoms. PTSD may be caused by combat, abuse, emotional loss, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, serious accidents, assault, and many other situations.
Symptoms of PTSD vary.
Reliving the event – Awake or asleep, a trigger can cause painful memories to surface and make the sufferer feel as though they are experiencing the event all over again.
Avoidance – Veterans will often avoid situations that remind them of the event. For example, some veterans avoid crowded places or loud, overstimulating situations. Some veterans will even avoid talking about the incident that effects them.
Persistent negative emotions – Veterans who experience PTSD can be overwhelmed by negative feelings. A veteran may also feel difficulty establishing trust, experience feelings of guilt, shame, remorse, disinterest in previously enjoyable activities, or genuinely find it hard to feel happy.
Hypervigilance or hyperarousal – Veterans experiencing hyperarousal will feel constantly on alert and often uneasy in unfamiliar situations. For instance, they may prefer to find a seat facing the door in a restaurant, watch for dangerous people or objects in normal everyday situations, or feel the need to be near a point of egress. This can be distracting and make it difficult to focus or enjoy simple experiences, like dinner with family. Veterans with signs of PTSD may also find it difficult to sleep or relax, be prone to anger or irritability, startle easily, act recklessly or abuse drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.
When we come home from military service, we do not just resume life as we knew it before military service. We might feel as if everyone back home has changed drastically over the years, but the reality is that military service has changed us. Usually the changes brought on by military life are quite positive, but there are often underlying dark issues that can plague us for the rest of our lives. Many aspects of life in the military can be quite traumatic, even if one has not served in actual combat. A lot of military jobs can come with extreme danger that most young men and women never dream they would face unless they were to engage in combat. Training mishaps and accidents are not uncommon, and can be a tremendous blow to the inner psyche when your closest friends are lost when you least expect it.
No one ever wakes up in the morning expecting to see a battle buddy be sucked into a jet intake.
Nor do we ever expect that an entire aircrew would be lost in a routine flight.
We know that mishaps occur, but can we ever be fully prepared for dealing with the aftermath?
Have you ever worked at a job where the least little bit of complacency can kill you or others around you?
It’s not uncommon that those who suffer from PTSD let their health go.
A considerable amount of research has found that trauma has negative effects on physical health. A growing body of literature has found a link between PTSD and physical health. Some studies have found that PTSD explains the association between exposure to trauma and poor physical health. In other words, trauma may lead to poor health outcomes because of PTSD. PTSD and poor health also may be coupled with behavioral risk factors for disease such as smoking, substance abuse, poor diet, and lack of exercise. Each of these destructive traits can be mitigated!
PTSD is tougher to handle when our body also feels like hell. If you smoke or consume alcohol or drugs, the momentary relief you may find from these are going to haunt you with poor health sooner or later.
If your diet is poor and you do not exercise your body, you can expect that your symptoms of PTSD will be increased the same as from smoking, drugs, and alcohol use.
Living a clean life may not make all of your PTSD symptoms disappear, but it certainly helps.
A number of studies have found an association between PTSD and poor cardiovascular health.
Unhealthy eating habits stand out as a lifestyle factor that increases the risk of death associated with the chronic diseases. When we eat poor food choices, and do not nourish our bodies properly, we increase our risk of preventable cardiovascular diseases. PTSD can bring on hypertension, especially when we eat poorly. Hypertension is a stepping stone to heart disease and potentially a heart attack or stroke.
We can do something about this by eating nutritious foods, even if we do suffer from PTSD.
The brain-gut connection is another important piece to consider. When the gut doesn’t feel good, the brain usually doesn’t feel good. The gut microflora helps our body to breakdown food and sustain normal bowel function. Consuming foods that will promote good gut microflora health, like Greek yogurt, Kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, whole grains, and colorful fruits and vegetables, can help maintain the gut’s integrity and keep the body and mind feeling positive and comfortable.
Omega-3 Fatty acids are another key factor. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are found in fatty fish such as salmon and herring. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the maintenance of brain health and for the prevention of cognitive dysfunction. Getting in 2 servings of Omega-3 Fatty acids per week (EPA & DHA in particular) can help preserve the maintenance and function of the brain, in addition to cognition. Get in that seafood!
PTSD does not have to keep us from eating healthy!
Regular exercise can help with PTSD.
There are numerous ways in which physical activity can be helpful for someone who is dealing with a diagnosis of PTSD. It does not really matter what you do for exercise, as long as you do what your doctor has approved, and that which you are capable of. Exercising for enjoyment will further increase your chances of staying motivated and engaged with exercise. Strength/resistance based exercise, aerobic exercise and mindful-based exercise practice such as yoga can all help. So realistically, all exercise is beneficial! It comes down to what you enjoy and ultimately, what you want to achieve.
Inactivity is associated with many chronic medical conditions, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and osteoporosis. These conditions can add to your feelings of depression and helplessness. Helplessness is an often times expressed feeling of PTSD sufferers. Exercise can release endorphins into your bloodstream that act as the body’s natural painkillers and they make you feel good.
Other benefits of regular exercise for sufferers of PTSD is that it serves as a distraction from stressful input.
Secondly, exercise is a form of mastery or control, which allows a person to regain control over her/his body and life. Depression often presents as a perception of a loss of control over one’s life.
I live with PTSD!
I know up close and very personally what it feels like to be full of anxiety – and how stress can be so overwhelming that I feel like a pressure cooker about to explode. My day time hours can be full of stress, and my night time can be full of the torment which only comes from terror. I live with constant nightmares as a result of PTSD. Sleepy time is supposed to be something to look forward to instead of facing it with the dread that soon the night terrors will come once again – sometimes, multiple times in one night.
There may be no cure for PTSD, but there is help available to us who suffer through medications and therapy. I want to emphasize, when we suffer from PTSD, we can also help ourselves by making our bodies as healthy as we can through good nutrition and regular exercise.
Additionally, it is important to know that you are not alone. There are support groups all around where you can discuss your issues among peers who know and understand exactly what it is that you are going through.