It has been estimated that roughly 1,000,000 veterans from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling with some type of mental health concern as a result of their deployment(s). This situation is particularly true for those who experienced a traumatic event.
In the days, weeks, months and even years following a traumatic combat experience, many veterans struggle with a variety of strong and difficult feelings. Some experience sadness and grief. Others struggle with panic attacks and rage. Some deal with guilt or blaming themselves for what has happened. And then others experience almost every one of the aforementioned emotions.
People experience these emotions in different ways. Anxiety comes in many forms and goes by many names, such as “worry,” “stress” or “fear.” Just the simple act of teaching your patient how to label their anxious feelings may seem impossible, but the label is not so important. What is important is helping them recognize that what they are experiencing is anxiety. When you do that then you can help them deal with it.
Sadness or depression is easier to identify. At some point, each and every one of us has gone through a period in which we were down, depressed, blue or just felt plain “blah.” Sadness is a part of life. However, after trauma, sadness may become a part of your patient’s daily existence. It can keep them from getting out of bed in the morning or it can keep them sitting home alone when their family or friends are out enjoying life.Â In other words, their quality of life suffers. And those around them, especially loved ones, suffer.
Anger has often been labeled as depression turned outward or toward someone else. As a psychologist, I appreciate the simplicity in this explanation. However, anger is a complex emotion and a powerful one. It can lead to a variety of physical, emotional, relationship and even legal problems. Rage, an extreme form of anger, is even more destructive. Anger is the emotion that is most often noticed by other people. It is hard to disguise as the affect, behavior, and posture of an angry person are obvious.
Guilt is also a complex emotion. Guilt is how you feel when you believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that you have violated some personal moral standard. For example, a Marine who kills a child combatant on the battlefield may experience grief because of his actions. Even though he was trained to shoot the enemy, he still has a difficult time accepting the fact that he killed a child. It goes against his beliefs about what is right and wrong.
As you can see, there are a number of emotions that can overwhelm a person following trauma. And these are just a few of the feelings your veteran client may experience. At times, it may seem like they are drowning in their own feelings. They may feel frustrated that the traumatic event happened so long ago, yet they are still struggling.
Whether your veteran patient is in the immediate days following a traumatic event or have suffered repeated traumas over their lifetime, it is important to help your client understand that experiencing difficult and powerful emotions is expected. However, it is equally important to let them know that they do not have to live with them forever. In addition to mental health professionals, your clients can find assistance from clergy, family and friends. In particular, family and friends are good at helping us put things into perspective. And the ability to recognize and label how they are feeling is the first step in allowing them to help themselves gain control over their past in order to lead a more fulfilling future.
*A previous version of this article was published in Dr. Moore’s column Kevlar for the Mind, which is published in Military times.