Monday, September 26, 2022

My wife and I see a couple of movies in the theater each year. So, when my father and step-mother came to visit recently, we took advantage of the free babysitting and made a break for the theater. We saw American Sniper, which was a very powerful movie. Regardless of where one stands on the topic of the war in Iraq, the movie very poignantly gives us a glimpse of the psychological toll that war can take on our servicemen and servicewomen, as well as their families.

I’m going to reveal a couple very basic elements of the movie, both of which either you already know or most likely would assume without having seen it. The movie follows Chris Kyle (a Navy Seal sniper) while on active duty in Iraq and back home on US soil. As his time in Iraq increases, he begins to show signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Seeing the movie, it occurred to me that PTSD, while increasingly talked about in the media, isn’t well understood by many people. While many of us will never serve in the armed forces (e.g., in the US or Israel), anyone can experience PTSD. All that is needed is to go through a traumatic event.

When we think of trauma, obvious things jump to mind, such as having been at Ground Zero on 9/11 when the towers fell. Some other examples include being the victim of abuse (e.g., physical or sexual abuse) and surviving a terrible car accident. Recently, I was conducting a seminar for correctional officers on the topic of suicide when one officer shared a personal story of his. Several years ago, he witnessed a woman get hit by a bus. She was catapulted many feet into the air and suffered serious injuries. Since then, he’s been plagued by recurring and very vivid images of the event. His story illustrates the fact that one can even develop PTSD from watching another person experience trauma.

Of course, most people who live through a traumatic event don’t develop PTSD. That isn’t to say they aren’t emotionally affected by it; typically, people feel some degree of emotional distress or discomfort. It just means the impact of the trauma on their emotional health isn’t great enough that it meets a certain threshold. As with any mental illness, a person must have specific symptoms to be diagnosed with PTSD. Some of the symptoms are:

• Recurring, involuntary, and intrusive memories. These are memories that come unbidden, out of nowhere. You might be in the supermarket, looking at the canned pickles, when memories of your horrific car accident flash across your mind.

• Repeatedly avoiding people, places, and/or things that remind you of the event. For example, a woman might avoid the neighborhood in which she was physically assaulted. She might also avoid wearing blue because she was wearing a blue blouse when she was assaulted.

• Hypervigilance. A man who survived being at the World Trade Center when the towers were hit might be hyper-aware and extremely anxious when in densely populated business areas.

Whether a person has PTSD, or just a few symptoms, it can be very frightening for them. Imagine how terrifying it is to live through a horrific event, possibly one that was physically traumatizing as well as emotionally. There is a sense of total loss of control, where you’re at the complete mercy of some thing or some other person. Consider someone being physically or sexually abused over many years in her marriage. As horrific as that is, imagine repeatedly reliving the horror of the trauma, and continuing to feel a loss of control, long after the abuse has stopped. In a very real sense, people with PTSD are re-traumatized over and over again by such things as their intrusive memories and nightmares.

Fortunately, there are very effective treatments for people suffering from PTSD. By no means is one doomed to live the rest of one’s life in a traumatized state! As with any mental illness, talk therapy (AKA psychotherapy) is essential because it gives the individual an opportunity to process their feelings and thoughts about the trauma. If it’s true that people sometimes suppress their thoughts and emotions because they’re too painful to confront, it is doubly true of people with PTSD. This is because the very thoughts and feelings themselves can re-traumatize the individual. And we know that suppressing our distressing thoughts and feelings (especially very strong ones) can take a heavy toll on our emotional (and sometimes physical) health over time.

There are a couple of treatments that are particularly effective for treating PTSD, one of which is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). According to the Veteran’s Affairs website, CBT “helps you understand and change how you think about your trauma and its aftermath. You will...learn ways to cope with feelings such as anger, guilt, and fear. After a traumatic event, you might blame yourself for things you couldn’t have changed…CBT helps you understand that the traumatic event you lived through was not your fault.” (www.ptsd.va.gov/public/treatment/therapy-med/treatment-ptsd.asp)

In closing, it’s important to understand that anyone can have PTSD, regardless of whether you’re a soldier, the spouse or child of an abusive person, or just an individual going through his daily life. While not everyone will develop PTSD after a trauma, it isn’t your fault if you do. There’s a lot of information out there and a variety of options for treating PTSD. As with any psychological difficulty, there is no need to suffer in silence.

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected], by phone at 201-406-9710, or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.

By Shoval M. Gur-Aryeh, Ph.D.

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