How a Veteran Can Heal from Traumatic Memories
By Anna Ciulla
An experience of active combat can be incredibly traumatic, which is why there is such a high prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the veteran population. These less visible battle scars—the traumatic memories, flashbacks and other symptoms that can cause daily torment long after active duty has ended—are a reminder of the great sacrifice that fighting to defend our country entails. But that sacrifice doesn’t have to take a lifetime toll. There are ways to cope with and ultimately go on to overcome traumatic memories that any vet can benefit from knowing about:
- Trauma-Focused Psychotherapies—in particular, Eye Movement Densensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE), and Cognitive Processing Therapy—have helped a significant proportion of people with PTSD find healing. In fact, a handy “Treatment Comparison Sheet” from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) helpfully laid out those recovery rates, (for EMDR, PE and CPT, respectively), as observed in multiple clinical trials. EMDR pairs the brief recollection of a traumatic experience (and associated thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations) with simultaneous attention to an outside stimulus (such as a finger moving back and forth, a flashing light or a tone that beeps in one ear at a time). The process can sound and feel somewhat hokey, and the science behind how EMDR works is not entirely understood—but what is clear is that EMDR often works to relieve the severity and discomfort of traumatic memories. In PET, clients learn how to take part in activities they may be avoiding because of a previous trauma, through imaginary exposure in the safe and supportive presence of a therapist. CPT is about reframing negative thoughts about the trauma.
- Practicing gratitude was effective at reducing symptoms of trauma and traumatic memories in vets with a diagnosis of PTSD, in a 2006 study. More recently, a 2014 study of Israeli youth under missile siege found similarly encouraging results: a reduction in severity of PTSD symptoms and greater resilience to trauma. Here is one example of practicing gratitude—there are many others—that is simple and easy to do: over the course of two weeks as a daily bedtime exercise, review the day and write down three things for which you were grateful. Then note how you feel at the end of those two weeks.
- Yoga is another promising intervention for alleviating traumatic memories and other symptoms of PTSD, according to research. An experience of war or other traumatic event often has the impact of disrupting the mind-body connection, causing many people to feel trapped, anxious and/or uncomfortable in their own body—or, stuck entirely in their mind and thoughts. Restoring that mind-body connection is thus a pathway to healing. And greater mind-body connection is what yoga and its various breathing, stretching and meditative exercises seek to achieve.
- Medication can also be helpful in combination with one or more of the above interventions in relieving the panic and anxiety of particularly intense traumatic memories. Among the PTSD population, moreover, there is a high rate of co-occurring disorders like major depressive disorder and substance use disorder, for which medication can be an important component of a comprehensive treatment strategy. The medications that have proven most therapeutic for PTSD include a class of antidepressants known as “SSRI’s” (or “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors”). SSRI’s act on neurotransmitters in the brain’s fear and anxiety circuitry, as a “Clinician’s Guide to Medications for PTSD” from the VA helpfully explains in more detail.
Traumatic memories don’t need to be a life sentence that disrupts life in the present, causing a lifetime of suffering. There is relief, and many people go on to heal from some of the hardest symptoms of PTSD. Trauma-focused psychotherapies, a regular practice of gratitude, yoga, and medication are some of the ways that veterans can find concrete hope and healing, as part of a comprehensive strategy to take their life back in the aftermath of war.
Anna Ciulla, the Clinical Director at Beach House Center for Recovery, is responsible for designing, implementing and supervising the delivery of the latest evidence-based therapies for treating substance use disorders. She has a passion for helping clients with substance use and co-occurring disorders achieve successful long-term recovery.