The current definition of PTSD requires an exposure to an intensely distressing event or events (either witnessed or told about in great detail) resulting in a pattern of intrusive re-experiencing, attempts to avoid such experiences and an ongoing negative cognitive/mood pattern. Such a diagnosis might be made after domestic and sexual violence, accidents, natural disasters, war, betrayal traumas, and even after hearing repeated stories of traumatic experiences to others (called secondary trauma).
Someone experiencing PTSD after life-threatening events might feel disconnected from family/friends, find it difficult to sleep, experience repeated nightmares, have difficulty not thinking about events during and after the traumatic experience, choose unhealthy coping patterns like alcohol abuse, or place themselves in situations where they re-enact parts of their trauma story.
But not everyone who has intrusive thoughts about a challenging situation, feels disconnected from their community (and previous self), drinks too much, or impulsively jumps back into danger have PTSD. Some of these same behaviors and experiences also show up in those who have left dangerous and all-consuming experiences and now do not know how to re-engage in regular life.
Consider these words of Dr. Steven Hatch, who spent time in Ebola clinics in Liberia at the height of the 2014 pandemic crisis in West Africa. He describes his experience after returning to his job at the University of Massachusetts.
To match the outside weather, my mood willingly turned dark. I withdrew from people, wandered about in a daze, and avoided public gatherings. When I did venture out, I carried myself in a completely different manner than I had before in my life.
The simple explanation was that I had post-traumatic stress disorder, and a few people, including some whose job it is to make such diagnoses, thought this to be true. (p. 239, Inferno)
He goes on to dispute his experience fighting Ebola as trauma. While difficult, he did not think it rose to the level of trauma experienced in war or even other more overwhelming Ebola clinics.
I could, however, recall the event [death of a toddler] in my mind without being emotionally overwhelmed, but also just as importantly I was able to still experience emotions about it, feeling appropriately somber. I just didn’t feel traumatized. (p 240)
So, what was his problem?
What I did share with many other volunteers was a sense that I didn’t belong in the States, for the work in West Africa was far from over. I desperately wanted to return, and almost within days of coming home I was trying to figure out how I could get back to an ETU [crisis Ebola center]. What I missed was the profound sense of purpose that such work had provided, and I slowly realized why people talked of “missing the war,” a phrase that always seemed discordant to my ears. You miss being in the midst of senseless butchery? Great. But I belatedly realized it was that purposefulness, the sense that you were doing something that was deeply and truly meaningful, that drove people back to such unstable situations. (p. 240-41)
There you have it. The seeming loss of crystal clarity or purpose in life can be very painful. When you are in an intense helping situation as Dr. Hatch was, every movement leads towards life or death. At the end of a day, you can count who lived and who died. No ambiguity. In addition, you are doing it with a team of people all committed to the same thing. You share the same vision, goal, and daily experience. You do not have to explain anything. And in these intense situations, you can have the kinds of intimacy not often experienced even in your immediate family. Also subtract mundane activities (grocery shopping, cleaning, taking care of children, etc.) that may not need to be done.
This is a recipe for distress upon return.
Return to regular life where you are expected to do these seemingly inconsequential activities AND where you have no one around to save AND no one who was present with your toughest experience…and you have a recipe for trouble. You may find it difficult to find joy in light of intrusive thoughts of recent emotionally intense experiences. You may long for a return to that sense of purpose and value. Because others do not understand and aren’t part of your “tribe” you may withdraw or find other ways to numb the pain.
Loss of identity and intensity may mimic trauma symptoms. They may be significant to need treatment. Military ending tours of duty, missionaries returning from field, humanitarians returning from doing crisis work, church planters leaving high stakes urban church plants, and trauma healing trainers returning from intense experiences may be at risk.
What can be done to prevent this distress?
- Probably nothing will take care of the problem. One could not go do intense work. Or one could become a crisis junkie. Neither are good options.
- But developing re-acclimation plans can help. Yes, training done before entering the intense experience will set the stage for healthy returns but post-tour of duty re-entry work is more important. The Army has develop protocols for re-entry by beginning the process even before leaving the “theatre.” Creating space for coming off the “high” giving time to process and following-up in the early days back can help. Involving family in the re-entry planning and building activities that can elevate family intimacy upon return will help immensely.
- Encouraging time and space to lament and process in group settings. This is where a therapist can help. Group process helps to put words to experiences and acknowledges impact on identity. This can also help re-connect with meaningful activities and experiences at home. One has to re-learn that meaning is not solely connected to intensity.
I have some very small personal experience with this. I’ve had intense experiences in international settings. When I have returned, I have sometimes found it hard to be at home when my head was still overseas. Being able to share with Kim and others helped. Practicing lament helped. Learning to be mindful of the present also helped me remember what has meaning and value in everyday life.