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What is the Definition of Combat PTSD?

We define combat PTSD as a specific type of PTSD experienced by men and women who have been in combat. Learn about combat PTSD symptoms and diagnosis.

Combat PTSD is defined as a specific type of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by men and women who have been in combat. Combat PTSD can happen to anyone in combat, from those that have experienced live fire to those who are support workers in a war zone area. Not everyone in combat experiences combat PTSD, but many do.

‘Simple’ Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD is a mental illness that can afflict anyone who experiences or witnesses extreme trauma that constitutes a threat to the life of an individual or another person. Not everyone who experiences this type of trauma gets PTSD and it’s unknown why some individuals get PTSD and others don’t (more on PTSD Causes).

Define Combat PTSD Through Its Diagnostic Criteria

Diagnosing combat PTSD is complex. It involves four components which I address below and provide examples of in this combat PTSD video.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), in component one, a person must have:

  • Directly experienced a traumatic event
  • Witnessed a traumatic event happening to another
  • Learned that a traumatic event has happened to a loved one
  • Experienced repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event (this does not apply to exposure through media)

Of course, any of these can happen in a combat zone to any of the people working there. In fact, combat PTSD can even be seen in some family members of soldiers as they learn the traumatic details of what has happened to a loved one.

The second component involves the persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic event. This often happens in flashbacks of the events but could also happen in images, dreams, hallucinations and other ways. You might see someone with combat PTSD experiencing a flashback if they jump or hit the ground when a car backfires.

Thirdly, a person with PTSD must actively avoid stimuli that are associated with the trauma. This might be avoiding thoughts or feelings associated with combat or avoiding places that remind a person of combat.

Finally, people with PTSD experience negative thoughts and feelings associated with the event. Examples of this might be:

  • An inability to remember part of the traumatic event
  • Persistent and exaggerated negative belief about oneself and others
  • Persistent negative emotional state
  • Feelings of detachment from others

These types of things are often seen in people with combat PTSD and their loved ones often say that the soldier “turned into someone else” once they got back from combat.

Combat PTSD Symptoms Don’t Define You

Some symptoms seen in people with combat PTSD include:

  • Carrying a weapon when not necessary
  • Seeing threats where none exist (for example, when a deliveryman answers the door)
  • Expressing rage for no reason
  • Physical violence against loved ones
  • And many others

The important thing to know about combat PTSD is that having these symptoms doesn’t make you crazy or weak. Experiencing combat PTSD symptoms just means that you are having a stress reaction to a nearly impossible situation. People with combat PTSD can be treated and go on to live full and healthy lives.

Dr. Croft is the co-author of a heralded book on combat-related PTSD called I Always Sit with my Back to the Wall. Find Dr. Croft on Facebook, on Twitter, on Google+ and on his homepage.

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