Post-traumatic Stress: An Invisible Injury Gaining Visibility

In a dangerous situation, it’s natural and healthy to feel afraid. Even after a traumatic experience, it’s common to feel frightened, sad, anxious, and disconnected. But when these symptoms persist, and the feelings of fear and helplessness don’t subside, it may be post-traumatic stress, a condition that can occur after living through a harrowing experience. 

Many veterans returning from combat experience post-traumatic stress, often referred to as PTSD, or PTS.

According to experts:

  • Records of PTS exist from over 2,500 years ago.
  • 7.7 million people are affected by PTS.
  • 11-20% of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from PTS.
  • 10% of Gulf War veterans suffer from PTS.
  • 30% of Vietnam veterans suffer from PTS.

Post-traumatic stress is hard to diagnose because it doesn’t always appear immediately. Depending on the individual, it can take weeks, months, or even years before symptoms appear. 

So, how can you tell the difference between a normal response to trauma and post-traumatic stress? There are three main symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress.

Re-experiencing the traumatic event 

  • Intrusive, upsetting memories
  • Flashbacks 
  • Nightmares 
  • Intense distress when reminded of the trauma
  • Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event, like a pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, or sweating.

Avoidance and numbing

  • Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma
  • Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
  • Loss of interest in activities and life in general
  • Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb
  • A sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career)

Increased anxiety and emotional arousal

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling overly vigilant and anxious
  • Feeling agitated and easily surprised

Other common symptoms

  • Anger and irritability
  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame
  • Substance abuse
  • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
  • Depression and hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • Feeling alienated and alone
  • Physical aches and pains

Regardless of the initial trigger or when these issues begin, it’s important to seek help immediately. The good news is our understanding of post-traumatic stress is increasing. You are not alone. PTS can be successfully treated and overcome.

If you experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress, here’s what you can do:

  • Seek the support of a counselor at a military base or VA hospital.
  • Let us connect you with a National Service Officer near you. Find out more
  • Find some companionship though Canines for Combat Vets, a service dog program run by the nonprofit organization NEADS
  • Take care of yourself by eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, relaxing, and avoiding drugs and alcohol.
  • Connect with other veterans through Purple Heart volunteer opportunities


Post-traumatic Stress Help Guide

Online Mental Health Screenings

Purple Heart PTS Resource Guide

National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. What is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Treatment of PTSD

Military Mental Health, Military PTSD

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