Soldier’s Syndrome: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

October 25, 2019
A certain, tolerable level of stress is normal, even necessary, for individual development. However, if this stress reaches such a high level that you can't overcome it, you'll end up with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), also known as soldier's syndrome.

In 1980, the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was introduced. That’s the first time it was included in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic classification guide (the DSM-III). Until that point, the definitions and categories of so-called “soldier’s syndrome” were all over the map.

During World War I, doctors named the combat stress-related illness that soldiers experienced “effort syndrome”. In World War II, they started calling it “traumatic war neurosis”.

In the Vietnam War, the term went from “combat stress reaction” to “adulthood adjustment disorders” to “post-Vietnam syndrome”. After the Vietnam War, social pressure forced experts to redefine the concept. That’s when the term PTSD originated. Experts began to recognize it as a primary diagnostic entity in the group of anxiety disorders. In this article, we’ll talk about PTSD as soldier’s syndrome to place it in a military framework.

A woman with soldier's syndrome or PTSD.

Definition and origin of soldier’s syndrome or PTSD

Everyone experiences stressful or traumatic situations in the course of their lives. When the stressful circumstances are of a particular nature and intensity, they can cause a sudden and total imbalance in the mental structure. At the same time, they block the individual’s adaptive and defensive abilities. In other words, the situation overwhelms them in every aspect and they can’t respond adaptively. As a result, the traumatic stress sets in.

The causes of soldier’s syndrome or PTSD are those experiences or environmental circumstances that provoke mental trauma. PTSD develops as a consequence of exposure to traumatic stressors that severely threaten the individual’s mental and physical integrity. Also, the individual’s subjective perception of fear and their personal inability to deal with said situation is relevant.

Different factors determine whether or not someone develops PTSD:

  • The intensity and severity of the trauma. The degree of danger that threatens the subject’s life, their physical and psychological health, and their identity.
  • The subject’s level of exposure, implication, and closeness with the traumatic event.
  • The repetition of traumatic situations. If an individual has to deal with a stressor over and over again, it weakens their resistance and adaptability until they develop soldier’s syndrome or PTSD.
  • The kind of trauma that a person is exposed to.

Symptoms

Anxiety, depression, guilt, and distress are some of the most common PTSD symptoms. The most characteristic symptoms of soldier’s syndrome can be divided into four categories:

Intrusive memories: Flashbacks and nightmares

It’s very common to relive a traumatic event over and over again. The emotional and physical sensations can be as real as the first time. Any day-to-day event can trigger flashbacks, especially if they relate to the traumatic event in any way.

Avoidance

Constantly reliving the traumatic event is very distracting. People with PTSD tend to avoid people and places that remind them of what happened and avoid talking about it. One way to deal with pain is to simply deny your feelings and block everything out to avoid suffering.

Hyperarousal

People with PTSD/soldier’s syndrome are hyper-aware. They’re also always on the defensive. They feel that they’re in constant danger. This is known as hyperarousal.

Cognitive, mood, and behavior alterations

People with PTSD often become very negative about everything around them and themselves. They feel guilty and are incapable of positive emotions or feelings. They might become aggressive or violent. Also, they’re easily irritated, imprudent, and reckless.

PTSD in the military

Some characteristics of the military population relate to and interfere with soldier’s syndrome or PTSD. These elements also intensify the individual’s symptoms and can make clinical intervention difficult.

  • Military training. This type of training forces them to be hypervigilant, which can be very dangerous if a PTSD patient becomes violent.
  • Problems with authority. This can also make it hard for them to accept changes in authorities or to accept someone who doesn’t have what the soldier believes to be “appropriate” experience.
  • Returning home. When people in the military finally go home, they often feel a sense of abandonment, guilt, and desperation. They often feel like they no longer fit in their old lives. They might feel guilty for having survived the war when their friends didn’t.
  • Brutal memories of combat. The memories of atrocious situations they experienced can haunt them.
A uniformed soldier with a therapist talking about soldier's syndrome.

Clinical intervention

Treatment for PTSD in the military context is most effective when it starts immediately after the traumatic event. This helps decrease the distress and complications that can arise. One common technique is called “debriefing”, which helps them integrate and be aware of the traumatic events shared by a group.

Another important tool is psycho-educationwhich helps anticipate symptoms. Training psychotherapy is also a very positive tool to help prepare soldiers for what they might see in combat.

Lastly, the most important thing about psychotherapy is that it adapts to each person’s circumstances. It can be done in a group or individual setting, although the former is very effective if the group is homogenous.

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