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OPINION - Post-traumatic stress disorder

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) A few years ago I interviewed a psychiatrist who worked for the Veterans Administration. His specialty was working with vets suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. He did such a good job explaining PTSD that I’d like to share the lesson he shared with me.

Imagine a burglar who breaks into your home at night. While he’re prowling through your house, his body is working in overdrive. The adrenal gland is working overtime… the hormones that fill the body actually heighten the sense of hearing. His eyes adjust to the dark much faster. His heart rate accelerate; their reflexes quicken. Once the robbery is over and the thief makes his get-away, gradually, over a period of the next hour or so, his body return sto normal.

The human body is quite good at short periods of heightened alertness during times of stress or anxiety. But our bodies aren’t designed to stay like that for extended periods of time.

The problem is that for our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan their bodies are always working like that. While on active duty they are constantly on that heightened level of stress and alertness. They go weeks or months without ever returning to normal.

The side-effects of staying in ‘burglar mode’ are debilitating. Eventually the physiology of your body starts to change, and those changes may be permanent. A veteran with PTSD may also have a primal fear response to loud noises, or to people coming up behind them, or to situations where they think they’re in danger. The sound of a firecracker tricks their minds and bodies into thinking they are under-fire. A person near them in dim or dark light makes them feel as if the enemy is attacking.

Sleep is particularly difficult. People are vulnerable when they sleep, yet the body can’t be on high alert while sleeping. So many vets don’t get restful, restorative REM sleep. Their bodies shut down for a few hours but not for a whole night, and they are never fully rested.

Our vets are indeed heroes. And we still don’t understand the full impact of sending these men and women into combat. What we do know is that their minds and bodies act as if they are constantly on active duty. Veterans deserve more than our thanks. We owe them continued treatment and research into post-traumatic stress disorder.

Chris Conley
11.11.13