By Capt. Donell Barnett, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist, U.S. Army Public Health CommandAugust 1, 2014
Do you remember what you were doing on 9/11? Who were you with? What were you wearing when you found out about the towers? I bet most of those details are pretty clear to you.
Now ask yourself, "What was I doing on 10/11?" Unless that's your birthday or anniversary, chances are you don't remember that day at all.
That's the way our brains work. Even if you were nowhere near New York on 9/11, the memory of that horrific day, your feelings when you heard about it and the reactions of those people with you are pretty clear. The same is true for your first date, best birthday party, and grandma's apple pie, mmmmmm … you can almost smell it just thinking about it.
Your brain likes to record strong memories, good and bad, in a lot of detail. Along with the memory, your brain tries to record your feelings at the time of the event. Both the image and the feelings associated with the image help us to easily react to similar situations in the future. For life-threatening occasions, such as what commonly happens on deployment, your brain records the event to help you respond in case you are ever in a similar life-threatening situation. And this is called? "Fight or flight," that's right.
With post-traumatic stress, people re-experience distressing events at times when they may not want to remember the event. Typically the event shows up in nightmares, flashbacks or disturbing daydreams. Sometimes these events are "triggered" by something around you that looks, feels or smells like the event you experienced. A crowded mall may make you feel like you're in that crowded bazaar. A dark movie theater may make you feel like you're in your hooch. In the same way, a whiff of certain cologne will make you think about that special someone.
When an event and the memory of it are too distressing to handle, people tend to go to great lengths to avoid them. Avoidance can mean not going to certain places, not talking to certain people, or even drinking an insane amount of alcohol to quiet down nightmares and get some sleep. The problem is that avoiding the reminders of an event can make the memories seem just as real as the actual event.
All these reactions are actually quite normal and are designed to help us survive. In fact, you've probably experienced avoidance behaviors all your life. Think about it, when you were a kid, did you ever have a nightmare after seeing a scary movie? Or maybe you crossed the street to avoid the scary cat-lady's house.
If these behaviors get worse over time, or they don't taper off after a few months, this just means your body is having a more difficult time putting the memory away. Professionals use six months as a benchmark timeframe. Some people take more or less time to process the memory. In any case, if these reactions are causing problems in your life, talk with a medical professional, behavioral health provider or chaplain.