Part 2: Why We Respond This Way – The Body
The basic reason why service members and Veterans respond this way is actually very simple:
It is both expected and normal.
Yep. I know what you are thinking. What you are experiencing is nothing you ever expected, and there is no way you believe the way you feel or act is normal. I know I didn’t. Nobody ever told me I would have the stress responses I did. In fact, I always thought less of Soldiers like that – like they couldn’t hack it. Like they are not the hero they want and you envision them to be. My own beliefs perpetuated the stigma about behavioral health. Also, there is no way you could tell me that what I was experiencing was anything related to normal. I felt different. I was not the same, and that is the most important distinction. We equate expected and normal with same – and that is simply not the case. To help you understand, I am going to attempt to explain what happens to the body (and specifically the brain) through the stress inherent in the military journey.
To understand the impact on the body, we must first understand the biological and physiological adaptations to stress. The brain processes stress response from the bottom-up. At the base the brain, the brain stem, we process sensory perception and activate hormones to prepare the body for action. Heart rate is elevated. Breathing rate increases. Our senses become more alert to process incoming information. It is a survival function – the fight or flight – common to reptiles and other animals.
Information is cycled through a part of the brain called the amygdala, where we process emotional response. We feel fear. We feel excitement. We experience anger. We respond through an accelerator (sympathetic) and brake (parasympathetic) systems. Together, these systems regulate the functions in the body based on our emotional responses. The sympathetic system – the accelerator – gets us “fired up,” and the parasympathetic system – the brake – calms us down again. Sights, sounds, or other perceptions cycle through the emotional elements before arriving to the top of the brain – where rational thought and judgment occur.
The processing of emotions is far simpler and faster as part of our biological survival mechanism. It is far quicker and more efficient to immediately prepare the body for action than it is to determine, rationalize, assess, and weigh options (all functions of the top or rational part of the brain). Also, the frequency, duration, and intensity of sensory input will cause the brain to adapt and process information more efficiently. The connections become stronger and more dominant – analogous to the effect of strength conditioning a muscle in your body.
Here is the most important part: these responses and subsequent adaptations occur outside our awareness. They are expected and normal responses to repeated or extreme exposure to stress – such as a traumatic event in combat or repeated exposure through multiple, extended deployments. A severe, traumatic event is a more acute condition that completely overwhelms the system. This emotional response shuts down the rational part of the brain because you are stuck in survival mode. The frequency, duration, and intensity of stress hard wires the emotional response system and illicits a behavioral reaction whether the situation requires it or not.
In my case, my panic attack occurred when driving through the mountains in Western Pennsylvania. The visual of open road and mountainous terrain triggered a response from flying in Afghanistan (something I had done over a period of 33 months). For some Veterans, it will occur during firework celebrations – the sounds of explosions triggers the hard wired stress response. For other Veterans, the sight of boxes or other trash on the road triggers a threat response to roadside bombs. When combat Veterans sit in a restaurant, they need to face the door because they need to see the access and exit to every room. The body jumps to conclusions of a threat response based on the similarities and memories etched in the brain.
These pervasive responses become automatic. Because the individual cannot anticipate or control the responses when they occur, they remain hyper-vigilant and anxious. They concentrate their energy on attempting to control what their conditioned physiological response is inhibiting them to do, and it significantly impacts their wellness and the quality of their relationships. The internal war of emotions isolates the member. They are alone in their suffering. They cannot nurture. They cannot feel joy because they are constantly mobilized for threats that reside in the depths of their mind. They become depressed. They become numb.
These responses should be expected because they are completely normal. The biology of our survival system responds exactly how it was intended to respond. It was designed to adapt in this manner. The good news is that the service member and Veteran can grow from this experience. They can experience joy, creativity, happiness, and love. The bad news is that – because it involves unconscious impulses – they cannot do it alone.
They won’t get help for the same reasons I would not seek help. I feared that I was broken. I was going insane, or worse yet, I was weak. I suffered for a long time. I had sleepless nights. I had moments when I would shake. Those feelings were awful, but I couldn’t accept that this was something beyond my control. I was supposed to be a leader, and I was afraid of being seen as a coward. Furthermore, I was a pilot, and I was afraid that this condition would end my career. Who would I become? Who was I now?
I share this to tell you that what you or your loved on is experiencing is completely normal. Conversations with my trusted mentors and friends convinced me of this. I admired and respected these warriors – and they shared that they too were experiencing many of the same challenges. I studied the physiology and stress and the neurological response. Stigma prevents us from talking about it and accepting this as normal. The knowledge and awareness gave me the courage to get help, and I hope it does the same for you.
The tragedy of wartime service is that you will never be same, but different can also mean better. Growth is one option from this experience, but it requires assistance to re-calibrate the brain. This is the first, most important step to discover your post-military path to empowerment, and it is both expected and normal.
This is Part Two of a Five Part Series entitled The War Within. The objective of this series of blogs is to increase service member, veteran, and family member understanding of how the warrior journey impacts their lives and the potential to heal and grow through the experience. If you require assistance (click here) or someone you love requires assistance (click here) please connect with us today. Stop Soldier Suicide is a non-profit organization committed to ending the problem of military related suicide, and we rely entirely on the generosity of individuals to fund our operations and advocacy efforts to improve the military to civilian transition process. If you would like to offer a donation, please click here.