Understanding PTSD in veterans
Are you having a hard time readjusting to life out of the military? Are you always on edge, always on the verge of panicking or exploding, or, on the flip side, do you feel emotionally numb and disconnected from your loved ones? Do you believe that you’ll never feel normal again?
For all too many veterans, these are common experiences—lingering symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, military service is the most common cause of PTSD in men. Studies of Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans have shown that as many as 30 percent have developed PTSD. For veterans who saw combat, the risk of developing PTSD is even higher. The more tours you made and the more combat you experienced, the more likely it is that you’ll develop PTSD.
It’s hard living with untreated PTSD and, with long V.A. wait times, it’s easy to get discouraged. But however isolated or emotionally cut off from others you feel, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. You can feel better, and you can start today, even while you’re waiting for professional treatment. There are many things you can do to help yourself overcome PTSD and come out the other side even stronger than before.
What causes PTSD in veterans?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sometimes known as shell shock or combat stress, occurs after you experience severe trauma or a life-threatening event. It’s normal for your mind and body to be in shock after such an event, but this normal response becomes PTSD when your nervous system gets “stuck.”
Your nervous system has two automatic or reflexive ways of responding to stressful events:
Mobilization, or fight-or-flight, occurs when you need to defend yourself or survive the danger of a combat situation. Your heart pounds faster, your blood pressure rises, and your muscles tighten, increasing your strength, focus, and reaction speed. Once the danger has passed, your nervous system calms your body, lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, and winding back down to its normal balance.
Immobilization occurs when you’ve experienced too much stress in a situation and even though the danger has passed, you find yourself “stuck.” Your nervous system is unable to return to its normal state of balance and you’re unable to move on from the event. This is PTSD.
Recovering from PTSD involves transitioning out of the mental and emotional war zone you’re still living in and helping your nervous system become “unstuck.”
While you can develop symptoms of PTSD in the hours or days following a traumatic event, sometimes symptoms don’t surface for months or even years after you return from deployment. While PTSD develops differently in each veteran, there are four symptom clusters:
- Recurrent, intrusive reminders of the traumatic event, including distressing thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks where you feel like the event is happening again. You may experience extreme emotional and physical reactions to reminders of the trauma such as panic attacks, uncontrollable shaking, and heart palpitations.
- Extreme avoidance of things that remind you of the traumatic event, including people, places, thoughts, or situations you associate with the bad memories. This includes withdrawing from friends and family and losing interest in everyday activities.
- Negative changes in your thoughts and mood, such as exaggerated negative beliefs about yourself or the world and persistent feelings of fear, guilt, or shame. You may notice a diminished ability to experience positive emotions.
- Being on guard all the time, jumpy, and emotionally reactive, as indicated by irritability, anger, reckless behavior, difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, and hypervigilance (increased alertness).
Suicide prevention in veterans with PTSD
It’s common for veterans with PTSD to experience suicidal thoughts. Feeling suicidal is not a character defect, and it doesn’t mean that you are crazy, weak, or flawed.
If you are thinking about taking your own life, seek help immediately. Please read Suicide Help, talk to someone you trust, or call a suicide helpline:
- In the U.S., call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
- In the UK, call 08457 90 90 90.
- In Australia, call 13 11 14.
- Or visit IASP to find a helpline in your country.
PTSD risk factors
We don’t know why some soldiers develop PTSD and others don’t, but we do know that the incidence goes up with the number of tours and the amount of combat you experienced. This isn’t surprising, considering many symptoms of PTSD—like hypervigilance, hyperawareness, and adrenaline-quick reflexes—helped you survive when you were deployed. It’s only now that you’re back home that these responses are inappropriate.
Learning how to become “unstuck” won’t happen overnight, but if you take it day by day, you’ll soon see progress. And as you learn how to deal with your combat stress, you’ll also be learning skills that will translate into success in the rest of your life—tools you can use for much more than overcoming PTSD.
Self-help steps for veterans
With the following recovery steps, you can learn how to deal with your combat stress and develop new skills that can benefit the rest of your post-war life. You’ll learn how to feel calm again, reconnect with others, deal with nightmares and flashbacks, cope with feelings of depression, anxiety, or guilt, and restore your sense of control.
And when you do get to see a doctor or therapist at the V.A., you’ll be in a better position to benefit from professional treatment as well.
Step 1: Get moving
Getting regular exercise has always been key for veterans with PTSD. As well as helping to burn off adrenaline, exercise can release endorphins and improve your mood. And by really focusing on your body as you exercise, you can even help your nervous system become unstuck and move out of the immobilization stress response.
Exercise that is rhythmic and engages both your arms and legs—such as running, swimming, basketball, or even dancing—works well if, instead of continuing to focus on your thoughts as you move, you focus on how your body feels.
Try to notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of the wind on your skin. Many veterans with PTSD find that sports such as rock climbing, boxing, weight training, and martial arts make it easier to focus on your body movements—after all, if you don’t, you could injure yourself. Whatever exercise you choose, try to work out for 30 minutes or more each day—or if it’s easier, three 10-minute spurts of exercise are just as beneficial.
The benefits of the great outdoors
Spending time in nature and pursuing outdoor activities like hiking, camping, mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and skiing can be especially beneficial for veterans with PTSD. They can help challenge your sense of vulnerability and smooth the transition back into civilian life.
Seek out local organizations that offer outdoor recreation or team-building opportunities. In the U.S., check out Sierra Club Military Outdoors. This program provides service members, veterans, and their families with opportunities to get out into nature and get moving.
Step 2: Self-regulate your nervous system
PTSD can leave you feeling vulnerable and helpless. But you have more control over your nervous system than you may realize. When you feel agitated, anxious, or out of control, these tips can help you change your arousal system and calm yourself.
Mindful breathing. To quickly calm yourself in any situation, simply take 60 breaths, focusing your attention on each ‘out’ breath. Or you can use this guided Mindful Breathing Meditation.
Sensory input. Just as loud noises, certain smells, or the feel of sand in your clothes can instantly transport you back to the combat zone, so too can sensory input quickly calm you. Everyone responds a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you. Think back to your time on deployment: what brought you comfort at the end of the day? Perhaps it was looking at photos of your family? Or listening to a favorite song, or smelling a certain brand of soap? Or maybe petting an animal quickly makes you feel calm?
Reconnect emotionally. It’s normal to want to avoid remembering or re-experiencing what you went through in combat. But the problem is that avoiding those memories doesn’t make them go away. In fact, when you try to suppress them, the thoughts, images, and dreams can actually become more threatening and intrusive. The only way to heal and move on is to reconnect to what you feel. This can be a terrifying step, but you can learn to reconnect with even the most uncomfortable emotions without becoming overwhelmed. See our Emotional Intelligence Toolkit.
Create a “safe” space
As a survivor of a war zone, you already know that the world can be a dangerous place at times. The problem with PTSD is that it makes you feel as if you’re still in danger, even when you’re not. By creating your own safe place (ideally someplace close and convenient), you can have a secure place to retreat to when you need to relax, meditate, or work through traumatic memories.
The safe place should be a secure, private location with limited access—somewhere you don’t have to worry about outside dangers or others intruding. Maybe it’s your bedroom or your office. Or it could be a corner of your back yard or an isolated spot outdoors. Make sure it’s calm and clean (no stressful paperwork, unfinished projects, or messes to distract you). You might want to add things that help you relax and make you feel good: plants, photos of loved ones, or a poster of a favorite place, for example.
Step 3: Connect with others
Face-to-face interaction with someone who cares about you is an effective way to calm your nervous system—but it doesn’t have to include a lot of talking. For any veteran with PTSD, it’s important to find someone who will listen without judging when you want to talk, or just hang out with you when you don’t. That person may be your significant other, a family member, one of your buddies from the service, or a friend.
You can also try:
Joining a PTSD support group. Connecting with other veterans facing similar problems can help you feel less isolated and provide useful tips on how to cope with symptoms and work towards recovery.
Volunteering your time for a cause that’s important to you, or reaching out to someone in need. This is a great way to both connect to others and reclaim your sense of power.
Connecting with civilians
You may feel like the civilians in your life can’t understand you since they haven’t been in the service or seen what you have. But people don’t have to have gone through the exact same experiences to relate to painful emotions and be able to offer support. What matters is that the person you’re turning to cares about you, is a good listener, and is able to be there for you as a source of strength and comfort.
You don’t have to talk about your combat experiences. If you’re not ready to open up about the details of what happened, that’s perfectly okay. You can talk about how you feel without going into a blow-by-blow account of events.
Tell the other person what you need or how they can help. That could be just sitting with you, listening, or doing something practical. Comfort comes from someone else understanding your emotional experience.
People who care about you want to help. Listening is not a burden for them but a welcome opportunity to provide support.
Step 4: Take care of your body
The symptoms of PTSD, such as insomnia, anger, concentration problems, and jumpiness, can be hard on your body and eventually take a toll on your overall health. That’s why it’s so important to take care of yourself.
You may be drawn to activities and behaviors that pump up adrenaline, whether it’s caffeine, drugs, violent video games, driving recklessly, or daredevil sports. After being in a combat zone, that’s what feels normal. But if you recognize these urges for what they are, you can make better choices that will calm and protect your body—and your mind.
Healthy habits for veterans with PTSD
Here are some active steps you can take to improve your PTSD symptoms:
Take time to relax and restore your body’s balance. Relaxation techniques such as massage, meditation, or yoga can reduce stress, ease the symptoms of anxiety and depression, help you sleep better, and increase feelings of peace and well-being.
Find safe ways to blow off steam. Pound on a punching bag, pummel a pillow, go for a hard run, sing along to loud music, or find a secluded place to scream at the top of your lungs.
Support your body with a healthy diet. Omega-3s play a vital role in emotional health so incorporate foods such as fatty fish, flaxseed, and walnuts into your diet. Limit processed and fried food, sugars, and refined carbs which can exacerbate mood swings and energy fluctuations.
Get plenty of sleep. Sleep deprivation exacerbates anger, irritability, and moodiness. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each night. Develop a relaxing bedtime ritual (listen to calming music, take a hot shower, or read something light and entertaining), turn off screens at least one hour before bedtime, and make your bedroom as dark and quiet as possible.
Avoid alcohol and drugs (including nicotine). It can be tempting to turn to drugs and alcohol to numb painful memories and get to sleep. But substance abuse can make the symptoms of PTSD worse. The same applies to cigarettes. If possible, stop smoking and seek help for drinking and drug problems.
Step 5: Deal with flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts
For veterans with PTSD, flashbacks usually involve visual and auditory memories of combat. It feels as if it’s happening all over again so it’s vital to reassure yourself that the experience is not occurring in the present. Trauma specialists call this “dual awareness.”
Dual awareness is the recognition that there is a difference between your “experiencing self” and your “observing self.” On the one hand, there is your internal emotional reality: you feel as if the trauma is currently happening. On the other hand, you can look to your external environment and recognize that you’re safe. You’re aware that despite what you’re experiencing, the trauma happened in the past. It is not happening now.
State to yourself (out loud or in your head) the reality that while you feel as if the trauma is currently happening, you can look around and recognize that you’re safe.
Use a simple script when you awaken from a nightmare or start to experience a flashback: “I feel [panicked, frightened, overwhelmed, etc.] because I’m remembering [traumatic event], but as I look around I can see that the event isn’t happening right now and I’m not in danger.”
Describe what you see when you look around (name the place where you are, the current date, and three things you see when you look around).
Try tapping your arms as you describe what you see to help bring you back to the present.
Tips for grounding yourself during a flashback:
If you’re starting to disassociate or experience a flashback, try using your senses to bring you back to the present and “ground” yourself. Experiment to find what works best for you.
Movement. Move around vigorously (run in place, jump up and down, etc.); rub your hands together; shake your head
Touch. Splash cold water on your face; grip a piece of ice; touch or grab on to a safe object; pinch yourself; play with worry beads or a stress ball
Sight. Blink rapidly and firmly; look around and take inventory of what you see
Sound. Turn on loud music; clap your hands or stomp your feet; talk to yourself (tell yourself you’re safe, and that you’ll be okay)
Smell. Smell something that links you to the present (coffee, mouthwash, your significant other’s perfume or cologne) or a scent that recalls good memories
Taste. Suck on a strong mint or chew a piece of gum; bite into something tart or spicy; drink a glass of cold water or juice
Step 6: Work through survivor’s guilt
Feelings of guilt are very common among veterans with PTSD. You may have seen people injured or killed, often your friends and comrades. In the heat of the moment, you don’t have time to fully process these events as they happen. But later—often when you’ve returned home—these experiences come back to haunt you. You may ask yourself questions such as:
- Why didn’t I get hurt?
- Why did I survive when others didn’t?
- Could I have done something differently to save them?
You may end up blaming yourself for what happened and believing that your actions (or inability to act) led to someone else’s death. You may feel like others deserved to live more than you—that you’re the one who should have died. This is survivor’s guilt.
Recovering from survivor’s guilt
Healing doesn’t mean that you’ll forget what happened or those who died. And it doesn’t mean you’ll have no regrets. What it does mean is that you’ll view your role more realistically.
- Is the amount of responsibility you’re assuming reasonable?
- Could you really have prevented or stopped what happened?
- Are you judging your decisions based on complete information about the event, or just your emotions?
- Did you do your best at the time, under challenging circumstances?
- Do you truly believe that if you had died, someone else would have survived?
Honestly assessing your responsibility and role can free you to move on and grieve your losses. Even if you continue to feel some guilt, instead of punishing yourself, you can redirect your energy into honoring those you lost and finding ways to keep their memory alive. For example, you could volunteer for a cause that’s connected in some way to one of the friends you lost. The goal is to put your guilt to positive use and thus transform a tragedy, even in a small way, into something worthwhile.
Step 7: Seek professional treatment
Professional treatment for PTSD can help you confront what happened to you and learn to accept it as a part of your past. When working with an experienced therapist or doctor, treatment may involve:
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or counseling. This involves gradually “exposing” yourself to thoughts and feelings that remind you of the event. Therapy also involves identifying distorted and irrational thoughts about the event—and replacing them with a more balanced picture.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This incorporates elements of CBT with eye movements or other rhythmic, left-right stimulation such as hand taps or sounds. These can help your nervous system become “unstuck” and move on from the traumatic event.
Medication. Medication, such as antidepressants, is sometimes prescribed to people with PTSD to relieve secondary symptoms of depression or anxiety. While antidepressants can help you feel less sad, worried, or on edge, they don’t treat the causes of your PTSD.
Helping a veteran with PTSD
When a loved one returns from military service with PTSD, it can take a heavy toll on your relationship and family life. You may have to take on a bigger share of household tasks, deal with the frustration of a loved one who won’t open up, or even deal with anger or other disturbing behavior.
Don’t take the symptoms of PTSD personally. If your loved one seems distant, irritable, angry, or closed off, remember that this may not have anything to do with you or your relationship.
Don’t pressure your loved one into talking. Many veterans with PTSD find it difficult to talk about their experiences. Never try to force your loved one to open up but let them know that you’re there if they want to talk. It’s your understanding that provides comfort, not anything you say.
Be patient and understanding. Feeling better takes time so be patient with the pace of recovery. Offer support but don’t try to direct your loved one.
Try to anticipate and prepare for PTSD triggers such as certain sounds, sights, or smells. If you are aware of what causes an upsetting reaction, you’ll be in a better position to help your loved one calm down.
Take care of yourself. Letting your loved one’s PTSD dominate your life while ignoring your own needs is a surefire recipe for burnout. Make time for yourself and learn to manage stress. The more calm, relaxed, and focused you are, the better you’ll be able to help your loved one.
Helplines and support
In the U.S.
Call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1); call the Veteran Center Call Center hotline to talk with another combat veteran at 1-877-927-8387; or use the PTSD Program Locator to find specialized VA PTSD treatment.
Visit Combat Stress or call the 24-hour helpline 0800 138 1619.
Visit Operational Stress Injury Social Support (OSISS) for a local number to talk to a peer who has been through similar experiences.
Visit Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) or call 1800 011 046.
Last updated or reviewed on March 30, 2023