PTSD & Service Dogs

Definition of POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER (Webster's):

"A psychological reaction occurring after experiencing a highly stressing event (as wartime combat, physical violence, or a natural disaster) that is usually characterized by depression, anxiety, flashbacks, recurrent nightmares, and avoidance of reminders of the event".

Possible symptoms:

Why dogs heal PTSD

Published on July 30, 2011 by Tracy Stecker, Ph.D. in Survivors

Many of our military personnel returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been traumatized by their experiences in the warzones. While the majority struggle with their experiences, most will not go on to develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is an anxiety disorder that develops as a result of a traumatic experience and involves symptoms of vigilance (i.e., being extra alert and aware of surroundings); numbness (i.e., having difficulty feeling emotions), and re-experiencing (i.e., flashbacks and nightmares).

We have evidence-based treatments for PTSD that work. These include behavioral therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy or exposure therapy and medication therapies. Treatments have demonstrated success, yet there is no cure for PTSD. Many individuals in treatment work through their symptoms so that they are no longer severely impacted by them. Yet, symptoms sometimes flare up again in the future.

We have institutions set up to work with returning military personnel to treat their PTSD. Much of my work deals with individuals who have had difficulty accessing treatment and working with the institutions designed to help them. Some of the difficulties are self-imposed (For example, it can be hard to admit that you are struggling and need help. It can be even harder to admit that someone who was never at war could help with symptoms developed in war.) Some of the difficulties accessing care are about the system.

Having difficulty accessing help does not help our military personnel in need.

Yet, in my work, I'm starting to hear a new theme. Dogs.

Here are some reasons why dogs might help individuals with PTSD.

  • Dogs are vigilant. Anyone who has ever had a nightmare knows that a dog in the room provides information. They immediately let you know if you are really in immediate danger or if you have just had a nightmare. This extra layer of vigilance mimics the buddy system in the military. No soldier or grunt or sailor is ever alone in the battlefield. The same is true when you have a dog by your side. You are not alone. You can ease your mind searching for data in the environment because you know the dog is doing it for you.
  • Dogs are protective. Just like the buddy system in the military. Someone is there to have your back.
  • Dogs respond well to authoritative relationships. Many military personnel return from their deployments and have difficulty functioning in their relationships. They are used to giving and getting orders. This usually doesn't work well in the typical American home, and I've talked to many servicemen and women who have been told to knock that off once they got home. Well, dogs love it.
  • Dogs love unconditionally. Many military personnel return from their deployments and have difficulty adjusting to the civilian world. Sometimes they realize that the skills they learned and used in the service weren't transferable or respected in the civilian sector. This can be devastating when they were well-respected for their position in the military. Dogs don't play any of these games. They just love.
  • Dogs help relearn trust. Trust is a big issue in PTSD. It can be very difficult to feel safe in the world after certain experiences, and being able to trust the immediate environment can take some time. Dogs help heal by being trustworthy.
  • Dogs help to remember feelings of love. The world can look pretty convoluted after war. I spoke to a Veteran recently who bought a puppy. He didn't want the puppy sleeping on his bed so he bought his puppy an expensive puppy bed. He was thrilled to introduce the bed to his new puppy and was outraged when the puppy ate it. He yelled at the puppy and disciplined him. He then told me that he sat down feeling miserable about yelling at the puppy and his puppy eating the bed. His puppy came up beside him and licked his face. He turned and looked at the puppy and said, "What are you licking me for? I am mad at you!" The puppy wagged his tail and licked him again. And he felt love.
    • The best part is that it doesn't seem to matter if the dog is a Pit bull or a Chihuahua or a plain old mutt.

Depression
Anxiety
Night terrors
Closed Emotions
Hyper vigilence
Hyper reactive
Sleeplessness
Eating changes
Panic attacks
Paranoia
Pain
Dissociation...and many other things

The Connection Between PTSD and Pain

PTSD and pain have been found to commonly co-occur. People with PTSD have been found to be at a higher risk for a number of mental and physical health problems. For example, having PTSD is linked to problems with depression, dissociation and substance use as well as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. In addition to these problems, people with PTSD are more likely than those without PTSD to experience problems with pain.

PTSD and Pain
Studies have found that pain is one of the most regularly reported physical problem reported by people with PTSD — no matter what type of traumatic event was experienced (motor vehicle accident, physical assault or combat). People with PTSD are also more likely to report disability due to the experience of pain.

For example, one study of volunteer firefighters with PTSD found that approximately 50% were experiencing pain (mostly in the form of back pain) as compared with only about 20% of firefighters without PTSD. Two other studies found that 20 to 30% of patients with PTSD experience frequent and persistent pain symptoms.

It has also been found that many patients with chronic pain problems have PTSD. Anywhere between 10 to 50% of people getting treatment for chronic pain have PTSD. These rates of PTSD are higher than what is found among people in general.

Why Do PTSD and Pain Commonly Co-Occur?
First, many traumatic events may lead to the experience of pain. For example, a natural disaster, physical assault, sexual assault, motor vehicle accident or combat may all lead to serious injuries that could cause chronic pain. In addition, the more severe a traumatic event, the more likely it is that a person will experience some kind of physical injury as well as developing PTSD.

Second, certain symptoms of PTSD may lead to the experience of pain. For example, hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD may cause frequent muscle tension that could result in chronic pain.

Finally, other disorders that commonly co-occur with PTSD may also contribute to the development of pain. Depression, which frequently is experienced by people with PTSD, may cause a person to avoid or limit physical activities, resulting in disability and poorer health which eventually increases the likelihood of problems with pain.

The Importance of Treatment
If you have PTSD and pain, it is very important to seek out treatment. Given that PTSD symptoms may give rise to pain, getting treatment for those symptoms may help reduce pain. If you are in need of PTSD treatment, you can find PTSD treatment providers in your area through UCompare HealthCare from About.com, as well as the Anxiety Disorder Association of America.

In addition, if a person is experiencing pain as a result of some kind of traumatic event, the experience of pain may also trigger PTSD symptoms, such as memories or thoughts about the traumatic event. Therefore, treatment for your pain is also important. You can find out more information about the treatment of pain from Anne Asher, About.com Guide to Back and Neck Pain.

Courtesy of:  Matthew Tull, PhD, About.com Guide, Updated January 29, 2012

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