Social bonds are a critical factor in treating PTSD. Here’s how you can help your friends.
June is PTSD Awareness Month, an annual reminder that not all wounds are visible. While we help spread information about this condition, its symptoms and treatment, we should remember that “awareness” also means outreach.
The military community knows all too well the causes and effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. There’s a good chance that anyone reading this knows someone who suffers from it, whether that person knows it or not, or seeks treatment and our community knows that not all treatment looks the same.
Many of us wonder what we can do when we see those signs in our friends, fellow veterans or even someone we fought alongside when they refuse to seek treatment. We aren’t trained professionals. We can’t force someone to seek help. What can we do?
Research shows that social bonds and social support have a “potent influence” on PTSD and PTSD recovery – in fact, they may be the most important aspect of recovery.
Humans create social bonds in a variety of ways. It might be getting together to watch our favorite sports team, sitting around a game like Dungeons & Dragons, or simply hanging out and binge-watching a season of our favorite shows.
In the military, we bond over our shared experiences, whether they be the hardships and deprivations of a deployment, sharing long hours repairing aircraft, or actually fighting the enemy in combat. That’s why Vet Tix made it their mission to give something to those who gave and their families by providing tickets to events and supporting our military community through access to events such as sporting events, concerts and more.
Fighting alongside someone not only creates a bond between the two (or more), it can force our brains to repeat the same physical and mental experiences of combat over and over, even long after the action has ended: post-traumatic stress disorder.
The same body of research that identifies human interactions as the worst causes of PTSD also say human interactions have a critical role in healing from PTSD. Where one side of the coin causes personal trauma, the other creates a sense of safety that is essential to the healing process.
In a literary review that reached back through decades of study, researchers found that human-caused traumas, such as combat actions, were far worse for creating the symptoms of PTSD than other causes, like car accidents. Many veterans are familiar with these symptoms: flashbacks, avoiding similar situations, and irritability, just to name a few.
Combat is especially traumatic because veterans knew the threat was coming, understood it as a threat, and felt a fear response. They also potentially watched terrible violence unfold, inflicting wounds on friend and foe alike. Researchers call it a “special horror in violating human norms.”
The term “norms” are important. We have been brought up in a society of rules, rules we have come to expect others to follow. In an evolutionary way, it brings us a sense of safety. Violently breaking those expectations betrays our faith in those societal bonds.
Restoring that sense of safety is critical to successfully treating PTSD. It keeps the individual focused on the recovery process and, most importantly, in treatment. That feeling of safety is reinforced through social bonds. There’s a lot of neurochemistry involved, but again, we aren’t trained professionals, we’re just trying to help our own.
Vet Tix, a non-profit that distributes free event tickets to veterans, military members currently serving and to first responders. Their impact on mental health throughout the community is evident through the stories told by servicemembers and their families who have accessed these tickets and felt connected to their loved ones and communities. Kathryn, a Navy veteran who was experiencing PTSD received tickets to a Ed Sheeran concert this year thanked Vet Tix by expressing her battle with PTSD and described how this concert helped her get her mind elsewhere.
In study after study, positive social support was the top buffer against psychological distress. So what can you, as an untrained individual, do to support someone who’s struggling? It might be as simple as getting tickets to a Vet Tix event and creating a safe, positive environment for your friend for a few hours.