After years of having things sort of ‘under control’ many veterans are seeing their PTSD symptoms show up worse than ever.
By Mary Tendall and Jan Fishler
During the past five to 10 years, the number of Vietnam veterans entering treatment for symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has increased substantially. Explanations from the vets who are trying to make sense of this expanded intensity range from, “It’s all due to the war in Iraq…” to “Now that I have retired, I can’t handle the empty time on my hands.”
Because factors that cause instability in the nervous system – such as hearing bad news, a sudden change of plans, an illness, or a change of lifestyle – often result in increased depression and anxiety, both explanations hold some truth. Lyle Jones* is a 60-year-old veteran who is dealing with changes that have aggravated his symptoms, eventually causing him to get the support he needs.
How one veteran got help
A construction worker for more than 30 years, Jones refers to himself as a “workaholic.” He left the house early each morning and returned in the evening with just enough time to eat, have a few beers, and pass out in front of the TV, where he got his best sleep. The rest of his sleep was restless, and he often awoke in the middle of the night in an alert state, unable to fall back to sleep. On the weekends, instead of spending time with family and friends or attending social functions, Jones found numerous projects around the house to keep him occupied, and was always “too busy” to go out.
A few months ago, his back pain from an old injury became so severe that he was forced to listen to his doctor and quit his job. Office work was out of the question, and Jones found himself at home with “too much time on my hands.” It was during those idle moments, when he had to take it easy and rest, that he felt the worst.
For many years, he was able to mask many of his symptoms by using alcohol and keeping busy.
Television news stories triggered old memories, and he longed to be in Iraq as a part of the cause. When he relaxed or “let his guard down” while watching something entertaining – even commercials – he experienced unexpected emotions, such as tears. Yet, as tragedies and losses occurred in his family, his emotions were flat and guarded. His chronic pain required medication that added loss of concentration and fatigue to his symptoms. On top of that, he began to see himself as unproductive, and that triggered even more depression. He expressed that, “Up to now, I was doing just fine.”
For many years, Jones was able to mask many of his symptoms by using alcohol and keeping busy. He believed that as long as he was “doing something” and supporting the household, he would be fine – in other words, capable of holding his PTSD symptoms at bay, and counting on time to take care of the rest. When he was no longer able to work as long and as hard as he had done in the past, the residual underlying problems from his war-time experience came back in full force.
Starting to wear down
Jones represents many of the veterans who are either in retirement or moving close to that stage of their lives. After years of extreme vigilance, the body and mind are getting worn down, and the normal distractions are no longer effective. This could be really bad news – unless the situation is used as an incentive to try something new, such as simple lifestyle adjustments and getting outside help. These two strategies are useful in relieving the symptoms of depression and anxiety that are related to the war-time experience.
Don’t be “too strong” to get help
The idea of receiving outside help for his problems was not something Jones would have considered in the past. He believed that therapy was a waste of time, and did not believe that anything would change after all these years. He also viewed the need to seek help as a stigma, believing that it meant he could not handle things on his own. “I am not a weak man!” he said.
He came to understand that the feelings he had been trying to cope with and hide for so long had not only affected him, but his family members, as well.
With encouragement and support from his family, Jones opted for treatment. He came to understand that the feelings he had been trying to cope with and hide for so long had not only affected him, but his family members, as well. In therapy, he also learned that his current feelings of anxiety, despair, and depression were actually a normal response to an abnormal experience, and that he was not alone. Professional help was able to relieve and release many of his internal stressors. His nightmares, repeated thoughts of combat, hyper-vigilance, avoidance of certain people and places, and mood swings occurred much less often.
Therapy helps others, too
Therapy also helped Jones’s wife, who was relieved to find out that there was a reason for his increased reactivity. By going through her own process, she learned how to take care of herself and also offer appropriate support to her husband when he needed it. Together, they learned how to communicate with – rather than react to – each other, and, in time, they were able to replace old, destructive patterns with healthier ones.
Idle time and chronic pain are large contributors to anxiety and depression following a traumatic event such as combat. During idle moments, locked up memories have an opportunity to surface, and symptoms that were hidden to Jones – although not necessarily hidden to his family – felt more intense.
Things you can do for yourself
Receiving professional help can be vital to veterans and families at this beyond-midlife stage. In the meantime, the following suggestions can help relieve some of the emotional tension:
- Get some exercise. Find an activity that you can comfortably do – anything from walking to weight training to sports. Do the activity at least five times a week at a prescribed time. If possible, include friends or family.
- Be around friends and family. Create a source of socialization that is comfortable, and make an appointment to meet in a pleasurable setting at least once a week. This may be as simple as having lunch with your wife or a friend, or taking a pleasant drive.
- Eat healthy foods. Make sure you are eating a healthy diet. Eliminate sugars and fatty foods, but substitute them with something you truly enjoy.
- Avoid watching the TV news. News programs often trigger the nervous system, generating symptoms and reactivity. (Yes, some things are good to avoid.)
- Find a hobby. Fill idle time with enjoyable activities. Try to find something that will make you feel productive without causing physical pain and stress to the body. (Indoor and outdoor gardening are activities that many vets find rewarding.)
- Force yourself to keep social agreements. Depression causes cancellations that are often regretted after the fact. The reports I hear following a “forced socialization” are always positive. Conversely, the reports about cancellations are almost always regretful.
- Locate your nearest vet center. Inquire about treatment. As a war veteran, you and your family are entitled to help.
It is possible to heal the PTSD symptoms even years after the cause – there are World War II veterans who are now ridding themselves of symptoms for the first time. Remember, war-time memories do not sit in the past, but in the present. So, it is in the present that you may work – with help – to create the positive and necessary changes in your life. It is never too late.
*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 20 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.
Jan Fishler is an author, writing coach, and creator/presenter of a series of writing workshops. Her memoir, Searching for Jane, Finding Myself, is available on Amazon. You can learn more about her at janfishler.com. She is married to a Vietnam veteran.