PTSD is an anxiety disorder with a specific set of symptoms that are the result of experiencing or witnessing traumatic and stressful events. The primary symptom of PTSD is to re-experience the traumatic event through flashbacks or recollections. These flashbacks cause unexpected disturbances generating a fear response that is both physical and mental. Flashbacks can be triggered by cues that closely represent the experience the person endured (such as witnessing a car accident), or they can occur unprompted.
Other symptoms of PTSD include avoidance, numbness, and hyperarousal:
- Avoidance is when the person tries to deflect their memories, avoids talking about their experience, or avoids associations that will likely trigger a flashback, e.g., avoids places with loud noises or refrains from driving a car.
- Numbness is a feeling of detachment and can present itself in forms of depression. This symptom can often lead a person to seek alcohol or drugs as a way to self-medicate or suppress their feelings.
- Hyperarousal is a state of continued heightened awareness. This is manifested through accelerated heartbeats, cold sweating, rapid breathing, heart palpitations, hypervigilance, and disruptive sleep.
Approximately seven to eight percent of people will experience PTSD sometime in their life. Rates tend to be higher for combat veterans; for example, about twelve percent of Gulf War veterans experience PTSD, as do about 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans.
TBI is a brain injury that is caused by an external force, usually from explosions, strokes, or exposure to chemicals and toxins. Depending on the severity of the injury, TBI can lead to changes in language, thinking, emotions, and sensation. Mild TBI, (i.e., concussion,) is the most common form of TBI and is caused by moving the head or body back and forth, provoking the brain to bounce around inside the skull.
Symptoms of TBI include:
- Prolonged headaches;
- Convulsions or seizures;
- Blurred speech;
- Weakness or numbness in the arms and legs; and
- Dilated pupils
Both PTSD and TBI impair higher cognitive functions in the brain. These conditions could also cause physical or chemical changes in the brain which can have profound adverse effects on a person’s behavior, mood, performance, and activities.
Servicemembers are particularly at risk for developing PTSD and TBI because they are more likely to experience life-threatening events by personally being exposed to war, terrorism, disasters, and violence.