As teenagers go, I was a pretty good kid. I stayed active in sports, was the editor of my yearbook, acted in theater productions, stayed on the honor role, and was always home by curfew. But, like all good kids, when you fall, you sometimes fall hard. A day after graduation, I told a little lie in order to attend a dinner and a play in the city. By midnight, we had crashed the car in the median after the driver feel asleep behind the wheel. I ended up in the hospital with a severely broken wrist and hand. Beyond my mother’s wrath, I also suffered terrible flashbacks. For years, I couldn’t get into a car without tremendous anxiety and the sound of a gravel road would completely freak me out. It is remarkable how traumatic experiences affect our physical and emotional state and I can only imagine how difficult it must be for our military and veterans. While I won’t presume any fool-proof solutions for the physical and emotional complexities of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), there are some helpful healthy choices that are easy to incorporate right now that may help alleviate some factors that aggravate PTSD.
The Stress of Silence
While the clinical designation of PTSD was made in the early 1980’s, for many servicemen and women, post traumatic stress is nothing new. World War II veterans returned from battle with “shell shock.” Many Vietnam Veterans had an even more difficult adjustment from “battle fatigue syndrome” as they encountered civil unrest and a hateful homecoming from war protestors. My neighbor is a Purple Heart recipient from Vietnam and a war hero although he would never consider his actions heroic. As a medic, he was on the front lines of the battle field rescuing injured soldiers and downed airmen. On a fateful mission, his helicopter was shot down. Everyone else died and his life hung by a thread. To this day, he still suffers with flashbacks and anxiety.
The three main categories of PTSD symptoms include
- Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
- Bad dreams
- Frightening thoughts.
- Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry
- Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past
- Having trouble remembering the dangerous event.
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense or “on edge”
- Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts.
Fortunately, in recent years, my nieghbor has also found ways to cope with his PTSD and is now doing remarkable things to help his fellow veterans. Let’s take a few minutes to understand why the brain latches on to trauma, then we’ll look at natural and effective ways to support healthy brain function and stress relief.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers have identified specific genes that actually make “fear memories” as well as areas in the brain that relate to fear and stress:
- Stathmin — a protein that serves as a natural and protective response to danger causing a person to “freeze.” Too little of this protein results in less innate fear which could increase traumatic exposure.
- GRP — or gastrin-releasing peptide, is a signaling chemical in the brain released during heightened emotional states which helps control the fear response. Lower levels or a lack of GRP may result in more and longer lasting fear memories.
- 5-HTTLPR — a gene that controls levels of serotonin. Serotonin impacts our mood and may also influence our fear response.
- Amygdala — a part of the brain that controls emotions, memory and learning functions. Interestingly, the amygdala is important in our early development to discern between real and perceived danger. However, it also heavily imprints emotional and traumatic events into our memory banks.
- Prefrontal Cortex — or PFC, is the area of our brain responsible for judgement, decision-making, and problem-solving. It also influences how the amygdala responds by suppressing and sometimes even extinguishing fearful memories.
- Additional Factors - personality traits like optimism or pessimism, environmental factors including childhood trauma, injuries, and other social influences may increase the tendency for some to be more pre-disposed to PTSD.
As a military spouse, one of the biggest challenges that I have noticed for military forces and veterans, is their resistance to seeking help. Mental health support is usually the last option for most due to the perceived stigma associated with psychotherapy. Other options include medications which, while beneficial for some, may lead to other complications. Many who deal with PTSD are also struggling with depression, other anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. These struggles also lead to poor choices that exacerbate symptoms even further. Avoid these common coping mechanisms:
- Alcohol & Drugs — a quick fix to numb the pain leads to other complications like violence, isolation and depression. Substance abuse can also reduce sleep and exacerbate PTSD symptoms.
- Caffeine — while most people think caffeine is a pick-me-up, it can actually trigger anxiety. Reduce or eliminate excess caffeine from your diet, especially popular energy drinks that are also loaded with sugar. In a recent study commissioned by the USAF, sleep disturbances and mission-disrupting fatigue were attributed to the overconsumption of caffeinated & sugary drinks. The temporary high and inevitable crash reduce the bodies ability to gain the health benefits of restorative sleep.
- Solitude — isolating yourself from friends and family can often trigger symptoms. Studies have shown that meaningful contact with people you care about can improve your healing a lot faster than going it alone.
- Junk Food — comfort food may fill a void but it can lead to other unhealthy choices. You want to feed your brain and body with vital nutrients not saturate them with refined sugars and unhealthy fats.
Last month, I wrote an article spotlighting Clay Hunt, a Veteran, who although he immersed himself in worthy causes, remained haunted by images from his time in service. His struggles with PTSD eventually caused him to take his own life. Tragically, the suicide rate among our military forces is at extraordinarily high levels. According to the VA, “Many Veterans have very disturbing thoughts and extreme guilt about actions taken during times of war. These thoughts can often overwhelm the Veteran and make it hard for him or her to deal with the intense feelings.”
The more we understand the connection between our brains and our experiences, the more proactive we can be in reducing and, hopefully, preventing PTSD. Next week I’ll talk about exciting new research in the field of epigenetics, nutrition and vitamin therapies that can help improve the quality of life for those suffering with PTSD.
A Positive Influence
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“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” — John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Copyright © 2013 by Christine A.Toriello, all rights reserved.