To Battle We Go: PTSD
By: Dr. Steve Kellner
Most of us have read news stories about the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. This is a condition affecting military personnel who have been in a combat zone, whether under fire or just under threat of being wounded or killed, or have seen their comrades wounded or killed. These soldiers are put in situations that are extremely stressful, but since they must continue to perform their mission, the brain represses their natural fright and flight response and stores the memory of the trauma.
The trouble comes later, after the soldiers have returned home and are out of the military in most cases. The repressed trauma of combat stress eventually resurfaces and is often expressed in unpredictable and sometimes violent ways, as the brain attempts to process all the soldier has experienced. Depression, extreme anger, and physical violence are just some of a long list of PTSD symptoms, and these lead in turn to high rates of divorce, spousal abuse, and suicide among combat veterans. PTSD and its latent effects are also present among first responders like police officers and fire fighters, who see and experience scenes daily that most of us can’t imagine.
Treatment for PTSD usually involves group therapy with other combat veterans suffering from the condition, led by trained therapists who are often PTSD survivors themselves. Families are encouraged to be involved in the therapy so that they know the signs of the disease and how to respond. And the military services have improved combat training so that soldiers know better what to expect before experiencing combat, although no training can fully do that.
The spiritual version of PTSD can occur in Salvationists involved in the daily grind of front line ministry. The stress of serving the spiritually and materially needy can result in discouragement, cynicism, and burnout. These symptoms can lead in turn to spiritual stagnation, ministry ineffectiveness, and sometimes to the abandonment of the mission altogether.
What’s the treatment for Salvationists’ PTSD? The first and most important preventative treatment is an active and deepening relationship with Jesus Christ. This is the “combat training” for all Salvationists, and it’s ongoing. But once PTSD symptoms appear in a Salvationist, it’s up to the Salvationists around him or her to recognize them and respond accordingly. The support of a spiritual family of fellow Salvationists, who know the stresses of Army ministry and perhaps have experienced their own bouts of PTSD, is invaluable. An encouraging word “in season” can be a very effective treatment.
I also believe in “positive” PTSD, like a mountaintop worship experience that is just too much to take in at once, or the joy of seeing sudden and significant spiritual progress in someone we have poured our lives into. The memory of these experiences is also expressed over time but in good ways, helping us to overcome discouragement and stay on mission in tough times.
It shouldn’t surprise Salvationists that spiritual PTSD exists. We have only to read the Psalms, where David pours out his heart to God with brutal honesty, to see it. But he overcame it with God’s help, and reading and meditating on his poetic words will help us do so as well. So, keep watch for the signs of spiritual PTSD in yourself and in your fellow Salvationists.