Turkey, Pumpkin Pie…and PTSD

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When we think of the holidays, phrases like “A holly jolly Christmas” and “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” come to mind for most of us. For our military heroes suffering with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it’s a very different story – one that can be described as a nightmare for both the veteran and his family.

For those with PTSD, the holiday season often brings feelings of loneliness, anger, frustration and isolation. There’s a lack of wanting to become involved, and common behavior is avoiding the festivities and traditions that most of us are accustomed to. The bright lights, loud noises and large crowds often trigger flashbacks of traumatic events from the war – and in many cases it’s just too much for the soldier to handle.

Sadly, many of these veterans and those who care about them don’t understand what’s going on, wondering why they can’t get into the season or be part of the family; especially when prior to combat they looked forward to the activities of the holidays with family and friends.

In order to better understand the problems that come with the holidays, it is helpful to understand the common symptoms of PTSD:

– Re-experiencing – the recalling of prior traumatic situations in the form of unwanted thoughts, dreams or flashbacks. In order to avoid these unwanted thoughts, the veteran may avoid many common situations that may provoke them, like being at a party.
– Being detached and distant during the holidays – the veteran may be there in body but is somewhere else in mind and spirit.
– Not wanting to socialize during the holidays – the veteran no longer wants to get together with others, preferring to stay isolated and alone.
– Being easily startled or hyper vigilant – even simple things like crowds become problematic for the veteran who is trying to scan the room with his eyes to avoid being surprised by someone intending to do him harm.
– Difficulty experiencing positive emotions – veterans finds it difficult to experience positive emotions, often feeling emotionally numb to positive events and over experiencing negative ones such as depression, anger and irritability.

Although a soldier with PTSD might experience some of these symptoms during the holiday season, there’s good news: there are a number of coping mechanisms that can make it easier on the veteran and his loved ones.

Talk to your family and friends. Explain to them why you feel the way you do this time of year and why it’s difficult for you to become involved. Explain that it is not that you don’t love or want to be with your family and friends, but that because of your symptoms it is difficult for you to do so.

Establishing new traditions is a good idea. If being around people bothers you as it does many sufferers, start a tradition with your family to go camping or somewhere quiet where enjoying the holidays will be easier.

When attending a holiday party or gathering, have a signal between you and your spouse when your anxiety or anger levels become too much to handle. That way when you have to leave the party and regroup, they will know why. Taking two cars will also give the sufferer more control because he or she will have an “out” and can escape if need be. Again, explain to your loved ones that this “escape” may become necessary if symptoms become too severe.

Restrict alcohol consumption because too much will intensify PTSD symptoms (especially anger and irritability), not help them.

If asked about your experience in the war by others, explain that although you appreciate their interest in what you have been through, you prefer (or have been advised) not to talk about it.

Look for local support groups in your area. Trying to cope alone makes it much more difficult. Also make sure you are working with a qualified psychiatrist and/or psychologist who specializes in PTSD.

When children are involved at the holidays, explain that the veteran’s behavior is not something they caused, but is from a condition that resulted from experiences in the war and with the right treatment will improve over time.

Returning to normal everyday life for a veteran impacted by PTSD can be extremely difficult, so offer as much support as needed, but also know when to back off and not force anything on him or her.

Most important of all this holiday season: get help for PTSD.

This is the best gift you can ever give to yourself, and your family. Professional help can make the holidays, and all year round, much better.

Harry Croft, M.D is a former Army doctor and an expert in combat-related PTSD. He has evaluated more than 7,000 veterans suffering from it, and is co-author of  I Always Sit with My Back to The Wall.

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