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A look at PTSD

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May 29, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

This week, in honor of Memorial Day, I want to spend a bit of time on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder set off by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event involving injury or death and characterized by intense fear. It happens most frequently to vets. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 31 percent of Vietnam vets suffer from PTSD. The disorder affects 10 percent of Desert Storm vets and 11 percent of vets who served in Afghanistan.

Symptoms of PTSD fall into three main categories. The first involves repeated “reliving” of the event and may include flashbacks, recurring memories, or physical reactions to situations that trigger memories. This is the major (but not only) symptom experienced by my hero Caleb. A second category is avoidance, including feelings of detachment and emotional numbing or apathy, lack of interest in routine activities, and avoidance of situations that trigger memories. The third category is arousal. This involves difficulty concentrating, exaggerated response when startled, hyper-awareness, irritability, outbursts of anger, and problems sleeping. Guilt is common as are symptoms of stress and tension (headaches, heart palpitations, agitation, etc.).

PTSD may be short-term in nature or may last a lifetime. It results in significant occupational, social, or other issues. Many of those who suffer from it avoid situations that will cause them to relive the event. Vets might avoid fireworks displays or war movies. Flashbacks are common and may occur while awake or in dreams. Some have problems with personal relationships as they build emotional walls to keep themselves from feeling and may turn to drugs or alcohol to numb themselves. Others startle easily and force themselves to become hyper-vigilant to avoid such situations. They may become physically or verbally violent without intention, even with those they care about, a symptom further enhanced if substance abuse becomes an issue.

PTSD has been around since the beginning of time but was not officially recognized until 1980. Greeks noted battle-related responses as early as 480 B.C. and there are recorded accounts from 1003 A.D. as well. Samuel Pepys recorded symptoms similar to PTSD after the Great Fire of London in 1666 and Swiss military physicians recorded “nostalgia” among troops in 1678, recognizing most of the symptoms that characterize today’s diagnosis. Doctors treating veterans of the Civil War recorded some suffered from “soldiers’ heart” and described those treated as having their hearts still involved in the war. In World War, it was called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” and often associated with the immediate reaction to combat (combat stress). By World War II, the term “gross stress reaction” was applied. The disorder was generally disregarded until post-Vietnam, when the number of those suffering “post-Vietnam syndrome” effects brought it to the forefront of medical and military attention.

Today, the public has a much greater awareness of PTSD. Most people have seen at least one of the films about the Vietnam War and the PTSD issues portrayed within them. We’ve seen the news stories about current vets suffering from the disorder and the difficulties they have readjusting to life. The disorder is difficult to treat in that it involves directly confronting the memories of the event causing the issue, something that is highly uncomfortable to do. Medications can address the symptoms but will not cure the disorder and must be monitored carefully as they affect each person differently.

For vets, PTSD has an additional complexity. The very nature of the military has traditionally discouraged troops from discussing their feelings and their war-time experiences. Actions that occur during war are not understood by those who were not in the situation. When Vietnam vets returned, they encountered a society full of judgment, with no understanding of PTSD. Before the disorder was officially recognized, a large number turned to self-medication in the form of drugs and alcohol.

Though the cause of PTSD is still unknown, there are physical, social, psychological, genetic, and physical factors involved and all must be addressed. Medical professionals have found that hormone and chemical responses to stress are different for those with PTSD and that medications which help adjust neurotransmitters may be beneficial. A good social support system is important. In many cases, counseling may be helpful.

Today’s military recognizes PTSD and provides services for vets and their families. It affects no one the same way but does its common characteristics allow for more frequent diagnosis and treatment. Families may receive counseling to deal with the challenges of living with victims of PTSD and vets receive instruction on coping strategies.

In all, of the 37 percent of vets who have sought services at the VA, more than half have mental health issues. Of those, half suffer from PTSD. This does not account for those vets who do not utilize the VA. This week, as we remember and honor those who gave their lives, let us not forget those who give a part of themselves every day.

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Next week, we’ll explore the slang of 1905 America. As I wrote Escaping Yesterday, I had to learn a whole new set of slang since my prior books were set in the 1870s. It was a fun adventure and I’ll spend a week sharing some of the terms with you. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (https://www.facebook.com/pamela.nowak.142).

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.

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