Managing Traumatic Stress and Combat PTSD Through The R-E-C-O-V-E-R Approach*
PTSD'S RELATIONSHIP-WRECKING HABITS
"Walking Point in Wisconsin", And Other Post Traumatic Relation-Wrecking Habits: If you've read our book, you have learned that PTSD is an accumulation of traumatic stress responses that are triggered involuntarily, deep in the mid-brain's limbic system. These responses are a helpful thing - at least initially - because they are survival-based coping responses and are designed to help a person react instantly in ways that will save his/her life. If the strategies work, then the brain and central nervous system turn them into "default responses" that get repeated thousands of times. We call these habituated responses, often categorized as "fight", "flight", or "freeze" responses.
The problem is, that habitual responses that were life saving when you were outside the wire in Afghanistan, or getting shot at in some Vietnamese rice paddy, are way over the top if you are return to those habits in your suburban home back in Green Bay. You may think its perfectly fine to sleep with a Bowie knife or a 9 mm semi-auto under your pillow, but your spouse may not feel so warmly about the idea. This is especially true if you (the vet) awaken in the middle of the night in the midst of a flashback, and use your weapon or your fists on your spouse because your brain - in the middle of a flashback - could not distinguish between her and the" enemy" who occupies that flashback. Or, equally horrifying , is the prospect that you feel compelled to "walk point" around your house because you are hyper-vigilant to the sounds of something scratching at the window. Convinced that you are the victim of a home invasion, you fire a shot a the shadow of an intruder, only to realize that it is your child, up in the night for a glass of water. Sadly, things like this happen all the time.
PTSD As An Equal Opportunity Relational Disaster: You may think that these kinds of trauma-related, and relationship-damaging incidents are limited to situations in which the husband/boyfriend is the veteran with the traumatic issues , while the wife/girlfriend is the one on the other end of the incident. But it is often the other way around. In today's armed forces, it is often the female in the relationship who was the soldier, sailor, airman or marine. Additionally, the prevalence of sexual assault is climbing to astronomical heights among females. Current estimates indicate that approximately 1 in 3 females in the US experience a sexual assault. Some of these females experience sexual assault before enlistment, while others experience sexual assault while in the military. Or both may occur. It often happens that sexually assaulted females' "wires get tripped" by a domineering drill sergeant. Other females, who are civilian, may bear the wounds of an old sexual assault..... if their boyfriend or husband returns home and is physically aggressive, sexually demanding, or uses postures, expressions, or just a tone of voice that reminds the woman of an old sexual assailant, then it is the woman who gets triggered, and may experience the effects of the old trauma on the present day relationship.
Old (Lifesaving) Habits Die Hard: Now, you might think that these habits can be easily changed, once a person enters into a "safe" situation in the rear D. But you would be wrong. For the veteran, convincing the brain and body to give up the very behaviors on which his life, or the lives of others once depended, is not an easy proposition. This resistance to change is often misperceived by spouses or family members as simply a refusal "to adjust". Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only are these lifesaving behaviors imprinted -literally- in the brain and central nervous system, but they exist in regions of the brain that are not under conscious control of the person. To make matters even more difficult, many of these behaviors were ACTUALLY ENCOURAGED AND EVEN REWARDED BY THE MILITARY AS PART OF THE SKILL SET FOR COMBAT. They were, as a result, reinforced in the brain. A platoon sergeant who treats his family as though they are his "grunts" will soon find himself in divorce court, but may have been revered in combat as a good leader who protected his men and ensured that they all returned home.
See this website for more articles about PTSD and its effects on relationships, and be sure to read about the topic in "I Always Sit With My Back To The Wall", available through this website.
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