Veteran PTSD Treatment Options

Veteran PTSD Treatment

For many, returning home after deployment means a return to normal life. But for some veterans, leaving combat experiences behind becomes impossible. These veterans may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although PTSD can be debilitating, it can be treated.

What Is PTSD?

If you witness a traumatic event or are directly impacted by one, you may be at risk for developing PTSD. PTSD is a disorder that may develop after you experience a traumatic event. Though symptoms may look different from person to person, they often include flashbacks (or re-living the event), avoiding people or things that remind you of the event, feeling tense or on high alert most of the time, and experiencing numbness or depression.

There are many different types of events that can cause PTSD. Here are some examples, though this is by no means an exhaustive list:

  • Witnessing death
  • Participating in combat
  • Experiencing sexual or physical assault
  • Being involved in a near-death experience (like a car accident)
  • Being the victim of a robbery
  • Being kidnapped or held against your will

In events that cause PTSD, there are two main components: fear and helplessness. There’s fear and horror, but there’s also a sense of powerlessness to change the course of an event. For instance, if you witness the death of a fellow soldier, you might feel fear when confronted with enemy fire. But you also may feel helpless or unable to help the wounded soldier.

About half of all people will experience a traumatic event in their lifetimes, but most people do not develop PTSD. Only about 6.8% of adults will develop PTSD within their lifetimes. Unfortunately, there’s no clear way to predict who will heal naturally from trauma and who will develop PTSD.

PTSD and Veterans

Because members of the military are exposed to traumatic events during war, they are at heightened risk for PTSD. Witnessing the death of a fellow soldier, suffering severe injury yourself, or simply being involved in combat all have the potential to cause PTSD.

The VA’s National Center for PTSD offers a breakdown of PTSD in veterans by service era. About 30% of Vietnam veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetimes, about 12% of Gulf War veterans are diagnosed with PTSD each year, and 11-20% of veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom have PTSD each year.

The VA estimates that approximately 8-35% of veterans across all service eras will experience PTSD. Depending on your exact circumstances, you may be at a higher risk. For instance, if you’re in a position with high combat exposure, your risk of developing PTSD is higher.

You may also be more likely to develop PTSD if you have another mental health condition, if you have a history of other trauma, or if you suffer physical injuries during combat. In some cases, not having social support may also increase your risk of PTSD.

PTSD Symptoms

In many cases, symptoms of PTSD will surface immediately after the traumatic event. But they can sometimes take months or years to appear. Because you may not automatically connect your symptoms to your combat experience or other traumatic events, it can be helpful to know some of the most common PTSD symptoms:

  • Flashbacks, or feeling as though you are reliving the event (these will often be triggered by something that reminds you of the event)
  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping
  • Avoiding talking about the event or how you feel about it
  • Avoiding people, places, or things that remind you of the event
  • Feeling depressed or numb
  • Experiencing issues with memory or cognition
  • Feeling as though the world is dangerous and feeling mistrustful of other people
  • Experiencing shame, guilt, or negative feelings about yourself
  • Feeling unable to experience pleasure
  • Feeling on edge, hyper-aware, or like you’re always on the lookout for danger
  • Anger or irritability
  • Being easily startled

These symptoms can seriously disrupt and damage your day-to-day life. Emotional reactivity can make even small stressors feel impossible to navigate. Negative views of yourself and others may cause you to become isolated, and persistent depression can make you feel as though nothing is worthwhile.

It’s important to note that while some of these symptoms are brought on or worsened by reminders of the traumatic events (“triggers”), this reaction is not always conscious. So, even if you don’t directly notice something that reminds you of an event, you may still experience a physical and/or emotional reaction. Here are some common triggers of PTSD symptoms:

  • Smells or sounds similar to those of a traumatic event (for example, fireworks that sound like artillery fire)
  • Environments similar to those of the event
  • News reports of similar events
  • Words, phrases, or images you associate with the event
  • People associated with the event
  • Anniversaries of the event
  • A new traumatic event (new traumas can sometimes trigger flashbacks and memories connected to older traumatic events)

PTSD, Drugs, and Alcohol

PTSD and substance use disorders (SUD) are often co-occurring. Approximately one out of every three veterans seeking treatment for a substance use disorder also has PTSD. It’s important to note that neither disorder necessarily happens first; you may develop a substance use disorder and then develop PTSD, or you may experience PTSD and develop a substance use disorder afterward.

Veterans and non-veterans alike often turn to alcohol, illicit or prescription drugs, or both to self-medicate their PTSD symptoms. And while this might seem like it’s working for a time, substance use will often worsen PTSD symptoms. PTSD also tends to worsen substance use.

If you use alcohol or other drugs, withdrawal symptoms can often feel like symptoms of PTSD. As a result, you may find yourself using or drinking more to keep symptoms at bay. If you suffer from both disorders and neither is treated, you may start to feel as though you’re in a downward spiral.

For veterans with PTSD and without it, alcohol use is a fairly common problem. And even if you don’t meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder, binge drinking can worsen PTSD symptoms, too. Binge drinking is defined as having four or more drinks in one sitting for women or five or more drinks in one sitting for men.

Treatment for PTSD

If the symptoms of PTSD are disrupting your daily life, you may start to feel as if there’s no way out. But the good news is that there are several medication-based and non-medication-based therapies available. In many cases, treatment providers will suggest using a combination of therapies. Here are some of the more common treatments.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

This relatively new treatment subconsciously helps you reshape the way you think about past trauma. In EMDR, you talk through traumatic events with a therapist. But as you process the events, you stimulate both sides of your brain. You may wear headphones that play a tone in your right ear, then your left ear, and so on. You also may hold a small device in each hand as the devices alternate vibrating. And in some cases, you may be asked to focus on the therapist’s hand movements.

Prolonged Exposure (PE)

One of the main symptoms of PTSD is avoiding memories of the traumatic event. Prolonged exposure therapy helps you to gradually confront memories and feelings surrounding the traumatic event. As you confront these thoughts repeatedly, your emotional reaction to the event won’t be as severe.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

When you hear the term “talk therapy,” chances are good that it’s referencing CBT. This form of therapy involves working with a therapist to develop individualized strategies for handling PTSD triggers or other issues that arise.

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)

This form of therapy aims to help you change how you perceive trauma. Like prolonged exposure therapy, it also will help reduce the emotional response you have to memories of the event. In order to make your processing of the event more thorough, your therapist may ask you to write about the event and your reactions to it.

Group Therapy

Sometimes, it helps to know you aren’t alone. If you have access to therapy groups for veterans or people dealing with PTSD, the camaraderie of these groups may be helpful. In some cases, you may also be able to learn from other members’ coping skills.


Antidepressants are some of the most commonly prescribed medications for PTSD. They can help alleviate depression, anxiety, and numbness. There are also medications to stop nightmares and relieve insomnia. For some, medications may be a temporary measure. Others may find that it’s best to take them for a longer period of time. If medication is part of your PTSD treatment plan, your doctor can discuss the duration of treatment with you.

How Long Will Treatment Take?

Because there are different levels of severity of PTSD and each person responds differently to treatment, it’s impossible to say exactly how long treatment will take. For some people, PTSD symptoms only last a few months. For others, it may take much longer. In most cases, even if PTSD symptoms do not go away entirely, undergoing treatment will help mitigate the impact that PTSD has on your daily life. If your provider recommends a particular type of therapy (like EMDR or CBT), you may want to ask whether there is a set timeframe for treatment or if the treatment is open-ended.

PTSD and Co-Occurring Disorders

As you’ve seen, PTSD can often occur with a substance use disorder. Medical professionals are able to treat both PTSD and substance use disorders at the same time. Through treatment, you’ll learn healthier coping skills while addressing root causes.

PTSD and Substance Use Disorders

If you have a substance use disorder or think you might, it’s important to seek medical guidance before you stop drinking or using. Stopping abruptly can cause severe withdrawals, and these withdrawals will almost always make PTSD symptoms worse. Stopping some substances (like alcohol and benzodiazepines) suddenly can lead to seizures and even death.

Depending on the severity of your substance use disorder, your doctor may recommend inpatient detox. In this environment, you will be given medications to prevent severe withdrawal symptoms, and you’ll also be monitored in case of medical complications. After detox, you may elect to complete inpatient or outpatient treatment for a substance use disorder.

PTSD and Mental Health Disorders

Similarly, other mental health diagnoses (including major depression and bipolar disorder) may worsen symptoms of PTSD. In order to really recover from PTSD, you’ll need to address any other diagnoses you may have. Fortunately, most mental health diagnoses are highly treatable, and a qualified mental health professional can work with you to manage the diagnosis.

The symptoms of many mental health diagnoses can look like those of PTSD. Qualified mental health practitioners can work with you to determine whether you have one or more diagnoses. Once they can better understand your situation, your provider can help you to start feeling better.

Moving Toward a Better Life

If you’re a veteran or active-duty military and think you may be struggling with PTSD, a substance use disorder, or another mental health diagnosis, we can help. We’re dedicated to helping those who have served our country lead healthier, happier lives in the service and out of it. We can help you find both substance use treatment and mental health resources to help you find holistic treatment and better your life.

When you’re dealing with PTSD, it’s easy to feel as though you’re trapped in a life of despair. But when you take the first steps toward professional treatment, you start to move closer to a brighter future. Reach out to us today to get started!