Understanding PTSD and how it affects our Veterans

Jan 27, 2021

Human beings are innately programmed to react and adapt to their environment, like any other animal. Reactions to different types of stressors we experience are based on our primal and innate drive to survive in the environments we are presented with.

When humans are placed in a situation such as war, no amount of preparatory training can eliminate the natural reactions that result from stressful stimuli and traumatic, unpredictable events. Many military service members return home and often find themselves feeling out of place. They are not as easily able to acclimate back to the lives they had lived prior to being deployed – and that is for good reason. Everything has changed because they have been changed.

One of our incredible Battle Buddy recipients, Rebekah Grundham, is a Chief Petty Officer (E7), Senior Enlisted Leader, and currently active Duty in the US Navy. Rebekah gave us a window into an experience that took place over eight years following her deployment. She described going to a baseball game with colleagues, and feeling overwhelmed by the large throngs of people and loud fireworks – “I almost ended up passing out”, she stated.

As you can imagine, physically returning home from active duty does not always imply that a Veteran is returning mentally. Transitioning from this completely different structure of life back to society is a shock in itself. Veterans learned to be hypervigilant and sensitive to their environments while they were on active duty, putting their lives on the line to protect themselves and our country. Ultimately, the transition back to home life does not remove the trauma experience during combat.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is caused by chemical changes in the brain that remain in place after traumatic events and experiences. Specifically, there is a part of the brain called the amygdala which often acts as our primitive brain. It is responsible for our fight-or-flight response. The amygdala functions to recognize triggers that share cues with past trauma, and functions with the intent to keep us alive. As a result of this generalization, stimuli that are present in everyday life (ie. loud noises, fast-moving objects, etc.) can reactivate the same learned stress responses from previous traumatic events.

When neural pathways in the amygdala are repeatedly activated by stimuli, we remain in a state of high stress, which as a result creates a strengthened response pathway that becomes the most frequented response. Post traumatic stress changes the pathways in the brain, and these pathways are strengthened the more they are activated and reinforced. This is where the presence of a professionally trained service dog can make a world of difference. The presence of a professionally trained service dog in these moments add up over time to change the trajectory of our veteran recipients’ lives.

Panic attacks, suicidal ideation, and reactivity are all triggered as a secondary reaction to processing serious residual trauma. PTSD can look entirely different from person to person in terms of how they have learned to cope, and how they react when presented with an internal or external stressor. The brain is largely affected by the release of chemicals endured during these reactions. When triggered, a flood of cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline clouds the brain and makes it difficult to feel grounded and safe.

It is common that those who live with this debilitating condition become reliant on a series of psychiatric medications to help manage their symptoms. However, one of the most beautiful parts of what these animals can provide is their ability to naturally redirect and diminish the influx of stress hormones – because they are intentionally trained to target them. As a result, many of our veteran recipients report that they have reduced or fully eliminated their use of medications. This is a tremendous accomplishment in their healing journey.

Each Battle Buddy receives top-tier intensive training before they are gifted to one of the many amazing American Heroes we aim to support in their process of healing. The Northwest Battle Buddies team is unique in how they have used the incredible olfactory abilities of these canines to hone in on the specific needs of our combat veterans suffering from PTSD.

Beyond the chemical level, the connection formed between human and canine can be mutualistic and healing in itself. “The day I saw my dog, Frog, it was an instant connection. It was unbelievable, I don’t know how to describe it. He’s a boxer mix, a rescue. But I look at that like myself. They rescued my dog to rescue me, and now we work for each other. He completely changed my life”, Rebekkah Grundham explains about her Battle Buddy, Frog.

The utilization of these professionally trained service dogs has been shown to greatly diminish the symptoms and challenges faced by our Veterans daily, and help them refurbish the confidence, determination, and strength that they bravely devoted to our country in the form of combat.

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