FamilyOfaVet - Real world info about PTSD, TBI, & life after combat
FamilyOfaVet - Real World info about PTSD, TBI, & life after combat.

Coping with PTSD - A Veteran's Perspective

My personal 3-step process for coping with PTSD

I am NOT a therapist or psychologist, but I have put a lot of thought into this process
before, during and after treatment for
PTSD. I have talked about these thoughts with
mental health professionals, and have included information learned from CPT (Cognitive
Processing Therapy), individual counseling, coping skills, and support groups. This
process is not intended to be a treatment program, but merely a guide to get you going in
the right direction.

Step One

The first step in recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder is recognizing that your
behavior is not normal. Notice that I did not say that “you have a problem” or that “you
have a mental illness”. But simply put, “my behavior is not what is normal for the average
civilian”. These behaviors are wide ranging, and vary from person to person. But the key is
for you to recognize that you are exhibiting behaviors that are not normal in the civilian,
non-combat environment.  This is a very difficult step, you, because of your combat
experience, will not naturally recognize that your behavior is not normal.

Behaviors such as routinely and excessively checking their personal security (making
rounds around your property in the middle of the night, triple checking doors to ensure
they are secure) are not typically normal behaviors. While these examples themselves may
not be detrimental, they are an indication that PTSD is creeping in. Other examples are
feeling uncomfortable in public places because you can’t watch everyone; not being able
to concentrate on a conversation with a loved one in a public place because you are
distracted by other peoples actions; feeling nervous in stores (especially Wal-Mart for
some reason); being hyper-vigilant in public, or when driving; being quickly “amped-up”
when there is a minor confrontation (particularly when it effects family or close friends);
sleep problems; quickly losing patience with children or loved ones (to include outbursts),
and then feeling upset because you don’t understand your own actions; emotionally
closing yourself off from family and friends; and of course… substance abuse, whether it is
alcohol, illicit drugs, or even prescription drugs prescribed by the VA or other physicians.

These are examples of irregular behaviors from my own life, and certainly should not be
considered an all-inclusive list. However, the key is to give yourself an honest, solid look in
the mirror, and check your own behaviors. Checking these behaviors with a loved one is
always a good idea, as long as you are willing to accept the loved one’s honest view of
your behavior.

Step Two

The next step, which is increasingly difficult, is understanding WHY you are behaving in
these ways. This is critically important to
coping with PTSD. This is the step that many of
us struggle with for many reasons. Due to our military training, we think of PTSD as a
“weakness” or “mental illness”. Neither of these is the truth. To understand why our
behaviors have changed, you must understand that there is a physical change in your
brain, as well as a chemical change.

We, as combat veterans, have had our brain function reconditioned by our environment.
This is not a “mental illness”, but a change in response to stress imposed on our bodies
and minds. The first thing we normally see is the loss of the “flight” response. Because of
our combat experience, we have been conditioned to respond by fighting only. Because of
this, our “baseline” level of chemicals in our brains is not the same as a “normal” civilian.
We have been conditioned to go from 0-60 instantly, so our bodies have adapted by
keeping our ready state at a higher level. This also explains why we cannot calm down in a
reasonable amount of time.

The key to understanding why PTSD is affecting you, is to understand that mentally, we
have been conditioned to react differently, and physically, there has been a change in our
brains. This is not to be confused with a mental illness. It is a change to a series of
conditioned responses because of exposure to an environment and/or a traumatic event.
Another note at this point is that this is not curing, recovering or treating. This is coping.
PTSD is not a condition that will ever be cured, and you need to understand that you will
be in a day to day struggle for the rest of your life, but the rewards of working on it are
worth the effort.

Step Three

The third step is one that will last the rest of your life. Now that you have identified that you
have behaviors that are no longer normal (notice that by this point, you should recognize
that these behaviors were once normal for your environment), and that you recognize that
PTSD is NOT a “mental illness” or “weakness” but rather a physical/chemical, and mental
process change due to your experience, we can begin to try to change these behaviors.
This step is where therapy, groups, and other types of exposure therapy often time offered
by the VA will work. If you have not personally gone through the first two steps, therapy
won’t be effective.

The most important thing you can do is to find a good support system. This should include
your loved ones, who need to understand steps one and two as well. There is no
substitute for loved ones that try to understand what you are going through, and support
you in your struggles. But most importantly, you NEED to find others with PTSD that are in
step 3 as well. No matter how well meaning, people that have not experienced combat
cannot fully understand what we are dealing with. This is a very difficult step to take. WHY?
Because we have been conditioned by our military service to view our fellow service
members as strong and to not show weakness to each other.

You will feel more comfortable talking about your experiences with those who you know to
have gone through similar situations. This will open you up to being able to share these
experiences and emotions with your closest loved ones, who likely want to hear about your
experiences and feelings so that they can be understanding and help you cope. This goes
back to step 2 once again. Every combat veteran will have some level of PTSD. The things
you are going through are going to be similar to what your fellow veterans are going
through. You need to take the leap of faith that your fellow combat veterans will

This is one of those subjects that we are conditioned to avoid in discussion. But when the
subject is breached, the conversation will grow rapidly. And you will find that you are not
alone. In fact, you will begin to see that the veterans you meet are exhibiting many of the
same behaviors that you do. And you will have many of the same emotions as well. From
here, you will continue to open up about your experiences. The more you can talk to those
whom you trust about your experiences, the more you will bring these emotions from your
sub conscious, and you will find that you can process these thoughts, and will begin to
reduce the feeling to exhibit these behaviors, and return to a somewhat “normal” civilian
life. This is not to say that you will be cured. You will cope with
PTSD for the rest of your
life, and will continue to fight the urge to exhibit these behaviors. But as time goes by, you
will find this easier and easier.

This article was written by SFC Anthony Patchell, an OIF Veteran.
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