Vetnam Reprogrammed Your Brain for PTSD
Have you ever had trouble with the anti-virus/anti-malware program running on your computer? That program is there to keep your computer out of trouble – to protect your computer from outside dangers. But sometimes that program can act up and cause trouble – weird behavior or even a total shutdown. That’s a lot like the ‘PTSD program’ that’s running inside your head if you have PTSD. At one time it was helpful, but now it’s trouble. The same reactions that got you through Vietnam are still waiting to spring into action, causing your symptoms of PTSD.
By Mary Tendall
It is with a deep sense of humble responsibility that I approach writing this article. Over the years, in many e-mails and many in-person discussions with Vietnam veterans and their spouses, I’ve heard and seen several threads running through the conversations: Confusion, sadness, numbness, anger, helplessness, guilt, and love.
How can a Vietnam veteran be so many things at once?
First, let’s look at how a Vietnam veteran can be a deeply loving husband, an angry man, quick to blame, a loyal protective partner, and an indifferent partner who prefers to be left alone – all at the same time.
The major contributor to PTSD symptoms is the experience of having been in a combat zone – Vietnam.
How can that be all be present in the same person and there be no warning as to which part will emerge at any given time? Of course sometimes there were contributing factors before he went to Vietnam, but for the most part, the major contributor to PTSD symptoms is the experience of having been in a combat zone – Vietnam.
If we look at the structure of the brain and what happens to three specific parts of the brain as it learns to alter its operation in order to survive in a combat zone, we begin to get a good idea of what happened to so many Vietnam veterans. The most primitive part is the brain stem, sometimes referred to as the “reptilian brain,” which responds to sensory input, and impacts involuntary responses such as respiration, heart rate, etc. Next is the limbic system, which processes emotion, and has a “filter” known as the amygdala that processes information, and sends survival signals to the mind and body. Finally comes the most “advanced” part, known as the neocortex – the seat of high-level reasoning. Surviving a war requires increased alertness, numbed emotions, and black-and-white thinking in order to carry out missions and to survive for a sustained period of time.
It’s the reprogramming of the brain that happens in a war zone It doesn’t matter if the soldier was in the bush or if he was a cook – the necessary sustained vigilance causes the brain to reprogram itself for survival in a dangerous situation. Add to that the losses and acts of war that often remain unresolved, and the causes of the veteran’s PTSD symptoms become more clear.
The soldier comes home still geared for combat readiness, and often unknowingly perceives his world as if from a combat perspective. His identity is confused, and his sense of belonging becomes shattered. Unfortunately, because this shift in brain function is based on a deep sense of survival, the problem does not “just go away” with the passage of time.
Flipping the switch
We are all too familiar with the devastating homecoming Vietnam veterans endured. Only a few were able to find or accept solid family support, a job waiting, and a hope for moving on. Far too many were ill-equipped to navigate through the changes and the political climate they faced when they returned from the war. While each veteran has a unique story to tell, what so many of them have in common is a programmed central nervous system that is easily triggered into what we can call “combat mode.” And this combat mode can take over and then disappear in a flash.
The soldier comes home still geared for combat readiness, and unknowingly perceives his world as if from a combat perspective.
With this in mind, it stands to reason that when that “combat-ready switch” is triggered, there is a physical, emotional, and cognitive reaction that skews perception and behavior. That’s bad enough, but another part of PTSD is the physically and emotionally draining and exhausting nightmares so many veterans suffer many nights – even almost every night – whether he is aware of those dreams or not.
Even when things are going OK, triggers can instantly change everything good to everything bad. And there are thousands of these triggers, many unnoticed by other people, and often not consciously noticed even by the veteran himself. Hearing a baby cry. Catching a scent of diesel exhaust. A particular expression on someone’s face. Any one of these things most people never notice can instantly ambush the Vietnam veteran, and ruin what might have been a pretty good day – leaving him (and the people around him) in a state of mixed thoughts and emotions – often leading to a need for isolation and distraction followed by shame, guilt, or more numbness.
With understanding, things can get better
A woman who had been married to a Vietnam veteran for thirty-five years told me that she had always taken it personally – blamed herself – for the things her husband said and did when he was triggered.
What so many Vietnam veterans have in common is a programmed central nervous system that is easily triggered into combat mode.
But now she understand more of what’s happening, and is able to tell him that she is not available to resolve differences when he’s triggered that way. She said that she sometimes is also triggered, and that they have finally learned to make sure they only listen to each other when they’re not feeling activated by various triggers.
Now that she understands that their perceptions are not accurate when in the triggered state, she has learned to distance herself. “For so many years, I kept asking him why he did what he did when he was upset. Of course he couldn’t answer that because he didn’t understand it himself. Now that we both know, we have a way to take care of ourselves without the anger and blame. And he has learned to do breathing exercises and other things that help to calm his system – and I do the exercises, too,” she explained.
Now that we can better understand how PTSD affects the brain, the veteran and his spouse can begin to understand how to deal with the confusion that occurs on both sides of a relationship.
I end with a favorite poem that offers hope to PTSD sufferers and those who love them.
There is a brokenness
out of which comes the unbroken,
out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow
beyond all grief which leads to joy
and a fragility
out of whose depths emerges strength.
There is a hollow space
too vast for words
through which we pass with each loss,
out of whose darkness
we are sanctioned into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound
whose serrated edges cut the heart
as we break open to the place inside
which is unbreakable and whole,
while learning to sing.
– Rashani Réa, © 1991.
You are invited to contact Mary Tendall with comments and/or questions regarding PTSD. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Names and some situations in this article have been changed. Some photos may include models who have no real-life relationship to the story or any PTSD issues.
Mary Tendall, MA LMFT, has worked for over twenty years with combat veterans and their families, as a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in combat-related PTSD. She has consulted for the Gulf War Resource Center, National Public Radio, and Newsweek. She continues to work with combat veterans and their families, and is affiliated with several national non-profits whose goal is to help veterans, such as VietNow, Soldier’s Heart, Train Down, and America’s Heroes First. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.