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Conference teaches about combat stress

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Posted: Tuesday, March 27, 2007 12:00 pm | Updated: 4:54 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Emily Baker

Killeen Daily Herald

The wrong reaction to someone experiencing combat operational stress can make the situation worse, experts said at a conference Monday.

“If you go to the mall, and he freaks out, and you say, ‘You do this every time,’ you are reinforcing his fears,” said Bridgett Cantrell, an expert on military cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Because education is key in knowing how to help a soldier through what the experts called a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, Cantrell and retired Lt. Col. Dave Grossman presented information about what that normal reaction is.

Grossman and Cantrell discussed the physical and behavioral reactions to traumatic events. Knowing what is normal will help prevent that reinforcement of fears Cantrell discussed.

“People respond the way they think they are supposed to,” said Grossman, a retired infantry officer. “Tell them they are supposed to have (post-traumatic stress disorder) and they will.”

Grossman developed the concept of “killology,” which “focuses on the reactions of healthy people in killing circumstances (such as police and military in combat) and the factors that enable and restrain killing in these situations,” according to Grossman’s Web site, www.killology.com.

He explained the body’s physical response to stress, which includes an increased heart rate; vasoconstriction, when blood is diverted away from nonessential functions, such as the portion of the brain responsible for rational thought, and is concentrated in essential areas, such as the heart; and an increase in adrenaline to increase the body’s energy.

“It’s a survival mechanism,” Grossman said of the response. “It can work against us or for us.”

Grossman explained that the body’s nerves essentially establish a memory after a traumatic event and gave the example of a child touching a hot stove. A child remembers not to touch a stove because pain is associated with the hot stove. Likewise, the memory in a soldier’s nervous system might come back when he/she is not expecting it.

“If you don’t know it can happen, it can be frightening,” Grossman said.

Because combat and the reaction to combat can be difficult to talk about, Grossman suggested couples read the same book about combat stress or find some other common starting point, such as attending Monday’s conference. The same conference is being presented today from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Killeen Civic and Conference Center.

Once couples can talk about the reaction to combat, they can begin working together to cope. A key is understanding that reacting to combat stress does not mean a soldier has post traumatic stress disorder, Cantrell said.

Cantrell is the co-author of “Down Range: To Iraq and Back,” which examines how combat affects the human psyche and how people can help their loved ones through the consequences of war.

She explained that spouses can encourage a soldier through a situation that bothers them, such as crowds or being around bad drivers. She also encouraged them to understand soldiers need time to return to a mindset that allows them to function as expected in a calmer situation than combat. Many soldiers do not return to a civilian mindset because deployments are scheduled so frequently now, but those who do take time to readjust.

If a soldier needs alone time or needs an escape such as playing video games, that’s normal. But obsessing over that release could be a sign of a problem that needs professional help. Alcoholism, anger problems, chronic sleep problems and other normal responses to traumatic experiences that recur consistently for a long period of time and begin to interfere with daily life are signs of a problem that needs professional help, Cantrell said.

For those who have stress responses that do not need professional help, which is the majority of people, a breathing technique can help when the body begins to react, Grossman said. The technique is breathing in through the nose for a count of four, holding it for four counts, breathing it out through the mouth for four counts and waiting to inhale for four counts.

Doing that three times helps connect the body’s conscious and subconscious functions, Grossman said.

All Fort Hood couples are invited to attend the second presentation of the conference today, regardless of whether a soldier currently is deployed or whether the couple is married. The event is free and includes lunch. On-site child care will be provided, but there are space limitations.

Contact Emily Baker at ebaker@kdhnews.com or call (254) 501-7559

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