Posttraumatic Stress, Anxiety, and Veterans Day

By Ian Lisman, MPP, Senior Program Associate, Advocates for Human Potential, Inc.

Every November, the world celebrates Armistice Day, better known as Veterans Day in the United States. The way we recognize Veterans Day in the United States is a celebration of all things military, a day for remembrance, and a time to thank those veterans in our lives.

The common salutation that veterans receive on this day is, “Thank you for your service.” I’ve struggled for years with exactly how to reply to this. I appreciate the recognition for my service, but a simple “you’re welcome” just seems trite and ill-fitting. My own mixed feelings about United States military involvement, particularly in the context of my own service and the ongoing conflicts around the world, make it even harder to address this salutation without some stressors attached to it.

The current political climate in the United States has certainly been a stressor for many people for a variety of reasons. Veterans Day, the military, and the ongoing geopolitical instability is something that I personally struggle with, not only as a veteran but as a U.S. citizen. Learning to cope with the stressors has been an ongoing struggle, particularly since the events of 9/11. In recent years, WRAP has provided a system that helps me brainstorm wellness tools, identify and create a plan to handle stressors, and make a crisis/post-crisis plan.

Like many people, I have certain dates and observances on my list of stressors. Although dealing with reoccurring nightmares, anger, depression, and anxiety are all part of living with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), November, and in particular the time around Veterans Day, definitely causes a spike in my stressors. WRAP has allowed me to think about this in a way that helps me get a better grip on it and promotes overall wellness. For example, I know that this time of year, with all its veteran appreciation events, parades, store sales, and the generalized drumbeat of pro-military sentiment, will cause me at the very least to be depressed and anxious and at the worst will trigger horrific nightmares that have a negative impact on my overall well-being. I call these nightmares “doozies.” I sometimes wake screaming, flailing, sweating, and generally very freaked out. These “doozies” cause me to reevaluate many facets of my life and make me extremely nervous for the state of my mental health. They will often leave me upset for weeks at a time as I try to slowly process them.

Using WRAP has helped me head off some of these more extreme effects of my PTSD, by allowing me to think about them before they happen, using self-reflection to understand that this time of year will be harder and that I will be vulnerable and raw. It is impossible to avoid these stressors in the modern world. Whether from the nightly news, commercial television, print media, social media, friends and loved ones, associates, coworkers, etc., I know that my service will be front and center both in my conscious and unconscious life.

The peace of mind of having developed a crisis plan seems, in some ways, to reduce the more extreme effects of acute anxiety and PTSD. The hypervigilance and paranoia that often haunt me are greatly reduced by looking at my stressors, understanding how my emotional well-being is affected by external stimuli, and using relaxation techniques as part of my wellness toolbox.

When I feel fear and anger, I use the relaxation technique of four-count breathing to help me move through the emotions and become calm and centered. Practicing this technique in high-stress situations has exponentially increased its effectiveness. I often push myself into high-stress situations (like crowds or watching war coverage in the news) and try to use relaxation techniques to reduce my stress while directly experiencing a stressor. These exercises, done in a semi-controlled fashion, have helped me deal with stressors that are out of my control. Helicopters and aircraft flying overhead, listening to an NPR story about Yemen on the radio while driving home, and other environmental factors are much easier to deal with when I have practiced relaxation techniques at times and places of my choosing.

Getting through this time of year is tough, and I’ve come to terms with much of it from a sociopolitical standpoint. When someone says, “Thank you for your service,” I typically reply, “It was an honor to serve.” That is the most honest and straightforward reply I can give while being true to myself.

Are there times of year or interactions that feel particularly challenging for you? What wellness tools do you use to support yourself when these stressors come up? We’d love to hear your ideas. Please comment with your stories and tools on the WRAP Facebook page.

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