Medical experts say PTSD affecting more than combat Soldiers but ‘is very treatable’
Medical experts say many are experiencing forms of PTSD and generalized stress these days, but there is hope. PTSD is very treatable, according to one Fort Knox Behavioral Health official. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Defense Health Agency) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT KNOX, Ky. — Over a year-and-a-half has passed since the car accident, and not a day goes by that Frances doesn’t feel its effects.

Some of the physical pains linger, reminding Frances of that fateful day in January 2021 when she and her 15-year-old son were T-boned into oncoming traffic at an intersection, getting hit head-on. That day stays with her.

“I’m still recovering from it,” said Frances, the spouse of a Fort Knox Soldier who wished to remain anonymous. “They said I had a brain bleed at the time and a [traumatic brain injury], so I’m still doing therapy.”

The psychological and emotional pain, however, have proven more challenging. She experienced post-traumatic stress disorder the very next day when her husband drove her to the hospital for a checkup.

“I was very scared when he was driving me home,” said Frances. “Any time a car would come from the side, I would start crying. It made me very scared.”

Fear, anxiety and feelings of dread are common indicators of PTSD, said Fort Knox Department of Behavioral Health chief Laura Johnson.

“The diagnosis of PTSD is very clear cut — there was a traumatic event, more than 30 days have passed; you haven’t adjusted to that event, or our bodies haven’t adjusted to that event, and it starts to manifest in some symptoms,” said Johnson. “Without the diagnosis, the symptoms can still exist in our bodies. We may have a hyper vigilance.”

At their National Center for PTSD website, the Department of Veterans Affairs notes that different people respond to traumatic events in different ways and at different times, depending on what triggers they may encounter.

“They may feel concern, anger, fear, or helplessness. These are all typical responses to a violent, malicious, or traumatic event,” according to the site. “However, research shows that people who have been through trauma, loss, or hardship in the past may be even more likely than others to be affected by new, potentially traumatic events.”

According to the National Center for PTSD, about 6 in 10 men and 5 in 10 women will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes. As well, about 6 in every 100 people, or 6% of the U.S. population, will suffer from PTSD at some point, and roughly 12 million American adults have PTSD on any given year. Women are twice as likely to develop PTSD as men.

Johnson said PTSD, or at least generalized stress, has affected military families in different ways since COVID-19 hit in 2020. The stress of lockdowns, mask mandates and changes in routines have caused people young and old to feel anxious about life.

“During the pandemic, a lot of us became very aware of our surroundings. Maybe the head was on a swivel: ‘How close are you to me; are you coughing; are you wearing a mask?’” said Johnson. “Wearing a mask in particular caused issues because we get a lot of our social cues through reading people’s faces.”

Johnson explained that in 2022, those traumas have taken the form of higher fuel and food costs, which for some people can stir up fight or flight responses, if people perceive a threat to them. The body often responds to stress accurately, according to her, but there must be a time of decompression for healing to take place.

“When we are under constant stress, or distress, our bodies never recover from that, and they stay keyed up,” said Johnson. “PTSD diagnosis or not, some of the symptoms are the same. We may have trouble sleeping. We may have trouble feeling comfortable in social situations. We may have trouble truly relaxing.”

Johnson said a key starting point of healing comes in the form of disrupting the body’s cycle of fixating on the trauma.

“We have to introduce distractions to it,” said Johnson. “By distractions, I mean relaxing activities, whether that’s meditation and yoga or working out, getting out in nature, or gardening. We want to disrupt that level of stress.”

The key is to find things that completely consume our time that help us get our minds off the stress, according to Johnson.

Frances said she has battled two issues in her recovery efforts that have kept resurfacing.

“I was regularly having flashbacks,” said Frances. “Every time when we were out on the road, I would kind of relive everything. It would almost cause me to have a panic attack, and I would get very shaky and start crying again.

“And I was having nightmares almost every night for the first six or seven months after.”

Johnson said while generalized stress can appear like PTSD in some ways, there are very specific traumatic events that lead medical experts to diagnose PTSD in someone.

“It could be combat-related. It could be a physical or sexual assault, or a horrific vehicle accident,” said Johnson. Those are significant events that are going to require significant therapeutic interventions to treat, and to get through.

“PTSD is very treatable.”

Johnson said she and her team of specialists at Ireland Army Health Clinic are equipped to help the Fort Knox community. Frances has been one of those with whom they are working.

Frances said doctors prescribed medication in the beginning of her therapy to help her get restful sleep. She no longer takes the medication, but is still working with therapists on ways to reduce the PTSD. She is still dealing with the effects of the brain bleed, but it is stable.

Medical experts say PTSD affecting more than combat Soldiers but ‘is very treatable’
One Fort Knox Army spouse and her son got into a car accident in 2021. She says she still suffers from the accident to this day, both physically and psychologically, but she is getting better with help from Army doctors. (Photo Credit: Eric Pilgrim, Fort Knox News) VIEW ORIGINAL

“Life has been a lot harder overall since the accident. We’re all trying to deal with it,” said Frances. “Fatigue has been harder for me, and trying to do things, and even remember to do things. And I have double vision, where my eyes aren’t working together at the same time.”

Frances said the medical personnel at Ireland have been a huge blessing for her and her family. The latest step on her recovery has been a plan to get her behind the wheel again.

“The Behavioral Health specialist told me I need to start driving again. He said the best way to try to get through this is to face it head on,” said Frances. She won’t have to face the trauma alone, however.

“Right now I’m supposed to have somebody else in the car just in case I have another panic attack,” she said. “I’ve driven a few times with my husband in the car, and it went pretty well.”

She and her husband said they are also turning their attention to their son, who is driving now. He just got his driver’s license and has graduated from high school.

“He doesn’t think he has PTSD, but he sometimes flinches and moves over when cars roll up beside him, so we’re trying to encourage him to get help,” Frances said. “I recommend Behavioral Health for anybody who needs it. They have been a big help for us.”

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Editor’s Note: Experts say mental health is not a one-size-fits-all. To better understand PTSD, download the VA Booklet at About Face booklet (va.gov). For more support tools to battle PTSD, go to Clinical Support Tools | Health.mil. Call 866-966-1020 to reach the Psychological Health Resource Center or 800-342-9645 for Military OneSource.