We’ve all heard the analogy of how to boil a frog, right?
The boiling frog story is a widespread description of a frog placed in a pot of cool water slowly heated to boil. The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually. This weekend, I had the opportunity to observe many boiling frogs, as I found myself in a public place where many recently returning soldiers were assembled with their family, friends, and loved ones. I don’t claim to have some type of magical observational powers, but in this case I think you will understand how easy this was for me to observe this phenomenon I am focusing on in this recent blog.
In a crowd of over 500 people, the easiest way to discern who were the service members and who were the civilians was pretty easy, as the service members were in uniform. Watching from a distance however, I began to see something very noticeable about many of our returning warriors that separated them from their civilian counterparts: their sense of urgency. Noted behaviors include: faster rates of speed in their gait, their eyes constantly scanning the environment, and their nervous distractions of checking a cell phone or their wrist watches. Zen interuptus would be an accurate moniker as “the present moment” was never an acknowledgement. The focus was on what was about to happen!
Don’t get me wrong! This Ranger understands all too well what it means to be “on alert.” I am also aware there must be an understandable amount of time to re-integrate a service member back into the civilian world. What I mean to point out is how out of place their heightened security truly is. This gathering wasn’t in an airport and it wasn’t at a military installation; it was at a hotel. Not exactly a hotspot for stress and turmoil, yet this invisible sense of impending action hung over the atmosphere like a storm cloud. In an effort to identify with more people wrestling with this “constant state of vigil”, I have a few questions for my returning servicemen and women. See if any of these actions or behaviors sound familiar. Imagine you are being asked these questions with just you and an interviewer in a private setting:
Are you easily startled by loud and/or sudden noises?
Do you have a hard time completing a sentence because you are easily distracted by movement around you?
Do you always ask for a chair at a public restaurant that places your back to a wall?
Do you find it difficult to get a full and uninterrupted night’s sleep without the aid of alcohol or drugs?
Are you experiencing frustrations with simple civilian activities because they move too slowly?
Combat-related stress manifests itself in a person that has been immersed in a stressful environment. Much like our boiling frog example above, the steady and daily exposure to this environment begins to feel manageable over time. This increased arousal may also stem directly from some trauma and the form it takes is shaped directly by the nature of your trauma. For example, if we have difficulty sleeping, it may be because we were afraid to go to sleep or stay asleep for fear of an attack of some sort while we were not conscious to repel it or avoid it.
If we are irritable, it may be to warn people to keep their distance or to not behave in ways that might trigger us. If we can't concentrate it may be because we are too busy trying to monitor all inputs from possible dangers. If we startle easily it may be because we learned to jump quickly to get out of harm's way.
Many of these symptoms may suggest that you are suffering from PTSD. Please understand, I am not suggesting that everyone with a heightened sense of security has PTSD, as the diagnosis is much more complex than a single observation. What I am focusing on are behaviors that are interpreted as a symptom. This symptom, which varies from person to person has a name. It is known as hypervigilance. And if we are hypervigilant it is probably because we saw our environment as having multiple and unpredictable dangers that we should be on constant alert for. In fact, much of the time our hypervigilance helped to keep us safe when we were deployed.
However, the "hyper" in hypervigilance suggests that we do more than is normal or reasonable. It is too much because it is an inconvenience or an encumbrance. It is hyper because you are no longer in a combat zone. While it is probably true that those diagnosed with PTSD are indeed safer because of all the precautions that they take in a combat zone, it is probably also true that our hypervigilance often gets in the way of our civilan lives. It may be that we deprive ourselves of going certain places and of partaking in certain events. For example, we don't go to an event because we can't get an aisle seat, or because we don't know what kind of people are going to be there. Sometimes we see people looking at us and we think that they are judging us or are hostile toward us.
In the case of my observations at the hotel, however, the people being the most affected are the loved ones and partners of the warriors. To make my point, this time, imagine you are being asked these questions by an interviewer in the same room, only this time your loved ones is present and they would answer the following questions on your behalf:
Are you hypercritical of your spouse in the way they perform their household duties?
Do you have outbursts of anger and find yourself yelling during “non life-threatening” situations?
Do you find a sense of peace being with your combat buddies greater than with your family members?
Do you find it hard to connect with your spouse or significant other with the same attention you did when you first met or were first dating?
In writing this 3 part blog, I am first trying to bring attention to a key symptom of the anxiety disorder known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. In the second part, I will focus on how this condition is created inside the body. The final piece will be on strategies you can implement to get you out of the water that is boiling around you.