Compartmentalization Can Help Soldiers Avoid PTSD


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Soldiers are at risk of developing PTSD. Image by Alvimann

Soldiers are at risk of developing PTSD. Image by Alvimann

Compartmentalization refers to suppressing, either consciously or subconsciously, upsetting thoughts and feelings. It can be a useful practice, as it reduces the anxiety a person might feel when doing something that flies in the face of his or her values.

For example, when a soldier has to shoot an enemy soldier, he or she might compartmentalize the act of shooting. The concepts of compartmentalization stems from the field of psychoanalysis, but can apply to many everyday situations.

This act of the mind is known as a defense mechanism, or a way of thinking people employ to help them feel better. It can be compared to placing some feelings and thoughts in a box in the back of one’s mind, in order to allow conflicting ideas to exist together in one’s head.

Soaring PTSD Levels in Soldiers

The report notes that the army has almost doubled the amount of behavioral health care providers during the past few years. Providers are concentrated in combat units and embedded in units serving in the most war torn countries, so that the soldiers who most need their services can easily access them.

Commanders are prioritizing behavioral health plans for their soldiers, and veterans can gain mental health services far more quickly than in the past. Despite the efforts of the U.S. military, however, PTSD rates remain high. Some statistics estimate that 20% of soldiers deployed in the past six years have developed PTSD.

PTSD Treatments

According to the NIH (National Institutes of Health), researchers are making extensive efforts to treat PTSD in veterans. One researcher, Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, is studying the effects of an antibiotic called D-cycloserine that can inhibit fear. Veterans with PTSD might be able to take that antibiotic before beginning exposure therapy, a treatment that research has shown to be effective, but involves speaking at length about traumatic experiences. Dr. Rothbaum is also researching treatments that change traumatic memories in the immediate aftermath of a trauma, before the memories are consolidated in the brain.

Another method of treating PTSD in soldiers is mindfulness meditation. A 2013 study offered eight weeks of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to veterans who had been diagnosed with combat-related PTSD. Their treatment included meditation, emotional acceptance, and stretching. The results were promising: 73% of the veterans showed significant reduction in their PTSD symptoms. Other recent studies showed that including meditation in basic training reduces the occurrence of stress related disorders.

Researchers are also making efforts to prevent PTSD from occurring in the first place. One recent study found that soldiers who had experienced past trauma, such as abuse, are more prone to developing PTSD. Therefore, researchers recommend that the military start screening soldiers for trauma before sending them into combat situations. To reduce the cases of PTSD, commanders could try to keep the most vulnerable soldiers away from more severe combat scenarios.

The U.S. military is exploring methods of treating PTSD.

The U.S. military is exploring methods of treating PTSD. Image by click.

Self-Reported Compartmentalization

Numerous writings and oral reports by soldiers have revealed another method of avoiding PTSD: compartmentalization. Many have self-reported that in order to engage in battle, they temporarily set aside their natural emotions, such as fear and sadness. That way, they fully focus on the difficult task at hand without allowing their emotions to deter them, and also become less emotionally affected by their experiences.

A recent report about war veterans highlighted this coping mechanism. In an interview with wounded veterans who engage in the very difficult work of bringing child pornographers to justice, some veterans explained how they could deal with viewing highly disturbing images. They said their combat experience taught them how to turn off their emotions, and not think about the images they view at work. One explained that his compartmentalization techniques help him to avoid taking his work personally. While he recognizes the horrible things he sees at work, he is able to move on without becoming affected by them. The veterans learned to use this defense mechanism in a beneficial manner.

Defense Mechanisms and Combat

Military members in combat are faced with traumatic situations – sometimes on a daily basis. New research and anecdotal evidence point to various potential means of reducing the aftereffects of that trauma. Whether commander screenings, antibiotics, or compartmentalization is the key to reducing PTSD in soldiers, sailors and airmen, it’s clear that it’s time for something to be done.

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