Understanding Combat Stress, PTSD, and Addiction
For those who have seen war firsthand, the word “overwhelming” hardly even begins to describe it. Veterans of armed conflict are overloaded with stimuli, and it takes a heavy toll on the mind. “Combat stress” is a blanket term used to describe behavioral disruptions experienced as a direct result of exposure to warfare. If left unresolved, these reactions can culminate in dangerous patterns of post-traumatic stress and addiction.
What is a Combat Stress Reaction?
A combat stress reaction (CSR) refers to any behavioral reaction displayed by a combatant that significantly lessens the ability to perform their duty. Common CSRs can be mental in nature, such as decreased acuity in decision-making and problem solving, lack of concentration, and slowed reaction time. They can also manifest in many physical ways, such as aches and pains, tremors, nausea/vomiting and other digestive issues, incontinence, sleep disturbances, and many more.
Whenever possible, combat stress should be dealt with in the moment. Left unchecked, these reactions can worsen over time. As a response to CSRs on the frontlines, American armed forces are trained in an intervention model known as BICEPS, named for the guidelines which should be followed – Brevity, Immediacy, Centrality/Contact, Expectancy, Proximity, and Simplicity.
The Risk of Unresolved Combat Stress
There is an important distinction between combat stress reactions and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A formal diagnosis of PTSD is only handed down after a minimum of one month of observable, enduring symptoms. A combat stress reaction does not require this degree of formality, and is usually assessed in the moment.
The link, however, is that untreated CSRs can eventually lead to PTSD. Our collective understanding of PTSD has made great strides over the years – since the late 1800s, combat stress and PTSD were lumped together under vague terms such as combat hysteria, shell shock, and gross stress reaction. But since the early 1980s, psychological studies have come a long way in defining what exactly PTSD does to the brain.
One of the unfortunate realities of PTSD is that it tends to contribute to substance abuse and addiction. A study from the University of South Carolina in 2012 shows that PTSD sufferers are two to four times more likely to fall into the grip of a substance use disorder. It’s not difficult to fathom why this happens. When trapped in a loop that focuses on the traumatic events of military service, some people feel that their only escape is self-medication. From this, dependency on drugs, alcohol, and/or opioid painkillers can develop.
The Cycle Can Be Broken
In this way, we can see how a clear line can be drawn from unresolved combat stress to PTSD and addiction. The good news, however, is that combat stress doesn’t have to be the beginning of the end. No matter how often or intense your reactions to stress and trauma are, there is help. If you are a combat veteran struggling to deal with unresolved issues that are derailing your life, please contact Warriors Heart today. We offer a healing environment in the Texas Hill Country, tailor-made for recovery, peace, and camaraderie with your fellow warriors.