This disease of mind and body that is called PTSD was probably what the soldier was suffering from when Patton famously slapped him in his hospital bed, thinking that the man was an abject coward. But we’ve come so much farther since those barbaric days when any mental illness was not viewed with compassion but rather with judgment as if the victim had willed their suffering upon themselves or that there was some error in them that the rest of us do not have. And we’ve not only learned much more about mental and emotional disease but also about this particular problem of PTSD. It is definitely not cowardice. There are components of it that are completely out of the victim’s control, so you cannot simply dismiss the disease as a willful exercise of cowardly self-preservation or self-indulgence. Moreover, many of the people you will meet that suffer from PTSD will be some of the bravest people you will ever encounter. PTSD sufferers may not have had the benefit of pristine, comfortable, relatively non-eventful lives that others may have enjoyed, with their safe existence leading to an inability to understand the tremendous suffering of fellow human beings, and making it easy to be judgmental.
Most or all PTSD sufferers have faced horrific tragedies, have been abused by others cruelly, have witnessed terrible evil in others, or perhaps carry a soul-searing, deep burden of pain and guilt from encountering trauma inflicted on others while they were helpless to intervene. So many people bear these traumatic experiences in themselves in seemingly hopeless, lonely daily battles because they refuse to give up against all odds, refuse to burden others with their pain, refuse to even indulge in allowing themselves to feel the pain or grapple with it since doing so might render them emotionally incapable of fulfilling their responsibilities to others. So they go on living their lives interacting with others as if nothing had ever happened, even while feeling the tremendous pain inside just below the surface, simmering like a powder keg. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like self-sacrifice to me. It sounds like a deliberate decision to put others ahead of yourself in importance, reasoning that the horrible pains you feel inside are not worth bothering others about, not wanting to be a burden.
And, as mentioned above, the pain they endure is not only mental or emotional. The physical component of PTSD is a function of the endocrine system, specifically the adrenal glands, gone wild. In the normal human body, the various systems are always working to maintain normalcy, a balance of chemical reactions called homeostasis or equilibrium, a state that is optimal for normal daily life. In the PTSD sufferer, the chemical system that controls fight or flight for emergencies is in a permanently “on” state after being forced to stay that way over extended periods of time. This abnormal state of alert overrides the normal balancing mechanism that brings the body back into calm state after an emergency has passed. And the alertness becomes the new normal in your body. The adrenal glands continue to pump adrenaline, also called epinephrine, into your body long after it is necessary, keeping you permanently on edge or putting you in this edgy state for abnormal periods. Also, your cortisol production goes haywire.
The cortisol is supposed to enhance your body’s energy sources so that the muscles have the capability for explosive or superhuman action in an emergency. Either you continue to have excessive cortisol production in your body, or the various areas of your body that interpret the cortisol malfunction. In any case, the end result is that your body remains “on edge” continuously. This permanent alertness is probably one of the causes of the re-experiencing, especially the nightmares. If the PTSD sufferer turns to alcohol, they are probably “self-medicating” to try to bring calmness back to the body. It is hard for the non-sufferer to understand what it feels like to be permanently on edge. Any relief such as what alcohol brings can seem like the welcome relief that a dehydrated, overheated person might feel when finally getting a long, cool drink of water. Also, this permanent alertness, in time, may have permanent effects on the body since it is not normal, even causing permanent damage to body systems that control blood pressure and sugar-production or even damage to the brain. There is most definitely a physical element to PTSD. This is beyond question now with advanced science. Some researchers have even found ways to quantifiably measure the damage to the body through CAT scans of the brain or through lab tests of the victim’s blood.
Hopefully this posting has been of some help in understanding this ailment and will help you understand your own suffering if you have PTSD. Or it will help you understand the suffering of those you know, especially our returning warriors, most of whom will probably experience PTSD at some level over the course of their lives if they don’t already have it full-blown upon arriving back from the war. Hopefully, this posting will increase understanding and empathy when these sufferers do crazy things that make no sense to others around them.