Conflict begets conflict. War wounds us all. It changes our minds.
Reminder: For the next few months, this blog is dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.
Human beings are social animals. We have evolved to be dependent upon each other for our survival simply because alone, we cannot outfight, outrun, outhunt, out-procreate, or otherwise dominate our animal world.
War has taught us that human beings are not to be trusted—that they are more dangerous than lions, tigers and bears. They kill us for cryptic reasons.
We are forever mired within an unsolvable problem: Alone, we are not likely to survive; but, people are likely to kill us. What to do? There is a solution, although not to the problem as defined.
The conflict lies within our complex brain. The awareness of self that defines each individual human resides in the frontal cortex of our smart brain, our cerebrum. The activation system that filters stimuli, that selects what may be received and perceived by different parts of the brain, lies in our dinosaur brain, the primitive structures. Combat has changed both brains.
Cerebral learning that defines the self consists of memories stored as chemical changes (related to RNA). The man or woman returning from combat is not the same person who left for war. His or her image of self has changed. Self image and internal dialogue has turned the Veteran into a different person, sometimes not recognizable to family and friends.
The experiences of combat vulnerabilities and choices has turned a social human being into a warrior capable of killing and surviving in combat; however, it also created a person unable to trust people other than a few members of her/his combat team. Then, we separate the individual from the support system of that team and send him/her back home, where family and community see a stranger—and treat her/him as a stranger. They are not at fault; Veterans look and behave differently, strangely.
The Veteran feels vulnerable, threatened, hopelessly lost and alone.
The primitive brain has learned to process incoming data by sending it to less cognitive processing parts of the brain. The shrunken hippocampus is superseded by an enhanced amygdala, and the Veteran reacts to stimuli exactly as what he or she is, a wounded animal. The primitive brain reacts with fear, flight, fight, freeze, or f—. The Veteran has been trained by combat to survive in this way, especially without the security of the combat team.
It is unlikely that volume and function of the hippocampus, which tends to activate the cerebral cortex, or smart brain, will ever be restored to pre-combat condition. Like limbs lost, it seems to be an irreversible condition. The only solution is to accommodate, and this can be facilitated by family and community as well as with professional help for the Veteran.
What we can change is our higher minds of cerebral cortex. The Veteran can continue to develop his/her self image. Because we can be aware of our cognitions (thoughts), we can take steps to change them. We can dismiss our “stinkin’ thinkin’” and replace it with realistic but positive affirmations. Again, there is a big however. Veterans are not likely to manage this on their own. We need the help of family, community, and health professionals—and, especially, each other.
A problem is unsolvable because it has been over-determined. That means we have placed constraints upon ourselves that make all possible solutions unacceptable. The answer is to define a new problem that can be solved, that has acceptable solutions.
We must accept what cannot be changed, but we also need to commit to changing the things we can.
What we can change is the way we think with our smart brain, and that takes effort by all of us—the Veteran, family, community, and health professionals. That is what I am working on for myself, and this blog is a part of my recovery. My prayer is that it might also help others.
How are we doing?