Each of us wants to be safe. We consciously make choices where we go or who we go with based on feelings of safety. In fact, we learned in school that our brains have a “fight or flight” response that naturally protects us against dangerous situations. Stories are told in which individuals performed amazing tasks way beyond their typical capabilities because the “fight or flight” response reflexively acted to protect the persons or someone they cared about. But what if that “response” never subsided?
What Do Many War Veterans Feel When They Return Home?
How does a veteran turn off the hyper-vigilant response?
Picture how you would feel if you daily had to protect yourself round the clock? Yes, imagine being in war. Around every turn could be a sniper, an IED, or other danger. You are trained to be hyper-vigilant, intensely focused and fear-based so that you will protect your life and the lives of those around you. Worse, imagine if you were surprised by an enemy and you or your comrades were seriously injured or others died.
Such is the traumatic life of many of our military, because, no denying, war brings trauma. So, it is no wonder that our veterans come back from battle and have a very hard time coping with the reality of a completely different world than the one of warfare.
For them, the constancy of the threat remains and the hyper-arousal continues despite no apparent threat. Moreover, the slightest sense of insecurity, a sensory trigger or an association to something or someone faced on the battlefield could spark an intense reaction. Their brain remains in high alert; so, they will react reflexively to some of the most benign circumstances.
I was speaking about reflexive reaction with one veteran. When we spoke about it, he almost laughed when he said, “If I had known about this a few months ago, it would have saved me over $4,000!” He was referring to an incident in which he was working out in a gym and someone came up behind him and surprised him. His startle response was to protect himself, and when he turned, he broke the person’s nose.
That may sound extreme to some, but for someone who endured horrific battle conditions, simple things can easily trigger an incident to which the person responds with force as a reflex. Their brains are not thinking from a place to assess carefully before they act. Their brain is saying, “ I am in danger and I need to do something right now!” Thus, the reflexive and impulsive act to self-protect and seek safety.
The outside world may view these hyper-vigilant veterans as violent and out-of-control. For the veterans who cannot turn off hyper-vigilance, their reflexive response is one of conditioning, in order to survive.
There is an overwhelming process of transition when veterans return home from places like Iraq and Afghanistan because they have had to watch for every nuance of activity around them for terrorists or others who may do harm. The cost if they fail to do so is potential death.
It takes some time to transition from hyper-vigilance. Although we may not understand it from our own environment, to our veterans, it is a real threat that must be dealt with immediately.