In the days, weeks, months and even years following a traumatic combat experience, many veterans struggle with a variety of strong and difficult feelings.
Some experience sadness and grief. Others struggle with panic attacks and rage. Some deal with guilt, or blaming themselves for what has happened.
People experience these emotions in different ways. Anxiety comes in many forms and goes by many names, such as "worry," "stress" or "fear." Just knowing how to label your anxious feelings may seem impossible, but the label is not so important. What's important is being able to recognize that what you're experiencing is anxiety, for then you can deal with it.
Sadness is easier to identify. At some point, each and every one of us has gone through a period in which we were down, depressed, blue, or just felt plain "blah." Sadness is a part of life.
After trauma, though, sadness may become a part of your daily existence. It can keep you from getting out of bed in the morning, or it can keep you sitting home alone when your family or friends are out enjoying life.
Anger has often been labeled as depression turned outward or toward someone else. As a psychologist, I appreciate the simplicity in this explanation. However, anger is a complex emotion and a powerful one; it can lead to a variety of physical, emotional, relationship and even legal problems. Rage, an extreme form of anger, is even more destructive.
Guilt is also a complex emotion. Guilt is how you feel when you believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that you have violated some personal moral standard.
For example, a soldier who kills a female enemy on the battlefield may experience grief because of his actions. Even though he was trained to shoot the enemy, he still has a difficult time accepting the fact that he killed a woman. It goes against his beliefs about what's right and wrong.
As you can see, there are a number of emotions that can overwhelm a person following trauma. And these are just a few of the feelings you may experience.
At times, it may seem like you are drowning in your own feelings. You may feel frustrated that the traumatic event happened so long ago, yet you are still struggling.
Whether you are in the immediate days following the traumatic event or have suffered repeated traumas over your lifetime, it's important to understand that experiencing difficult and powerful emotions is expected. However, you don't have to live with them forever.
Mental health professionals, clergy, family and friends can help you put things into perspective. And the ability to recognize and label how you're feeling is the first step in allowing them to help you gain control over your past in order to lead a more fulfilling future.
Bret A. Moore, Psy.D., is a board-certified clinical psychologist who served two tours in Iraq. He is the co-author of "The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook." This column is for informational purposes only and is not intended to convey specific psychological or medical guidance.