Research Shows How PTSD Can Trigger Growth In Veterans

May 31, 2017
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Psychological trauma like that caused by combat can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD can be debilitating, but researchers are getting a better handle on whether there may be a silver lining for those who suffer from it. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: During his tour in Afghanistan, Marine Sergeant Kevin Hoffman rode in a vulnerable perch - the machine gun turret atop his truck. That's where he was when he drove over a culvert packed with 300 pounds of explosives. The blast flipped the truck like a pancake, but somehow he survived.

KEVIN HOFFMAN: My buddy, who was in the vehicle in front of me, actually told me I got up and walked, like, a few steps and started dusting myself off like nothing happened. And then I collapsed.

PRICE: He was at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Maryland for more than four years of operations. Hoffman said the hospital did amazing things for him physically, but his psychological burden grew until he hardly left his room. He even had to start taking vitamin D supplements because he wasn't getting any sun. Now, though, he's back on duty and says his harsh experiences made him stronger.

HOFFMAN: The biggest thing I've learned is that life is too short. I've grown in so many ways, you know, as far as being a thousand times more focused.

PRICE: There's an academic term for what he's talking about.

JESSICA KELLEY MORGAN: Post-traumatic growth is sort of this paradoxical experience where people report positive psychological changes following something that we would consider to be a very stressful experience.

PRICE: Jessica Kelley Morgan is lead author of a new study of post-traumatic growth among military veterans. PTG, as it's called, has long been studied in civilians and veterans. But the team she worked with at North Carolina State University focuses on PTG's relationship with post-traumatic stress disorder because earlier research looked mainly at one or the other.

MORGAN: Yes, indeed, people report both, which makes sense intuitively because it's the same event that's causing both of them. But post-traumatic stress is predicting lower quality of life and post-traumatic growth is predicting better quality of life.

PRICE: And that relationship between the good and bad aftereffects of trauma might offer new ways to improve lives. Morgan says if post-traumatic growth can be fostered, that could become a PTSD treatment method. The goal would be to increase overall well-being without focusing solely on the post-traumatic stress symptoms. In her study, the most common type of that growth among veterans was increased appreciation of life.

RICHARD URANGA: I can hear the birds chirping. I can hear the wind blowing.

PRICE: Richard Uranga served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marines and had become convinced he would die there. He's talking about what it's like to sit in a park now.

URANGA: I can, you know, see the people walking across the path. I can hear their footsteps. And I'm just paying attention to everything that's going on and just trying to soak everything in.

PRICE: Morgan, the NC State University researcher, says a broader understanding of PTG may not just directly help treat veterans, but also erode stereotypes about them.

MORGAN: There's certainly a cultural narrative right now that our veterans are broken. And regardless of whether or not they're experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms, that's not all that they are.

PRICE: A private treatment center in Virginia has started the first large-scale effort to foster PTG in veterans. If that works, more people like Sergeant Hoffman might start getting the benefits of traumatic stress and not just the downsides.

HOFFMAN: So, like, the other day I was up early enough. I pulled over on the side of the road, watched the sunrise and took a picture. I thought it was appropriate that it was a beautiful coastal Carolina sunrise on the seventh anniversary of me getting turned into a human lawn dart.

PRICE: Sergeant Hoffman doesn't need those vitamin D supplements now. He's got the sun. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Durham, N.C.

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