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PTSD: What It Is and How You Got It

Operation Red Wings Foundation has served hundreds of military families who have been affected by combat trauma. We’ve heard a lot of tough questions about PTSD, like:

I’m a strong person. How did this happen to me?

They knew they would see combat when they enlisted. What’s their problem?

I feel like my brain has been ambushed. Is this normal?

It happened a long time ago. Why can’t they just get over it and move on?”

PTSD is a disorder that causes an imbalance in the nervous system. It is a physiological response to a traumatic experience, not a reflection of the mental strength, professionalism, or willpower of the trauma survivor. Understanding what PTSD is and how it occurs can help families accept a diagnosis and move forward with treatment.

The survival of our ancient ancestors depended on the speed in which they could identify a threat and be prepared to fight it or run away from it. We’ve inherited bodies that can perceive danger and trigger a fight-or-flight response in a split second and almost entirely subconsciously.  Once that alarm goes off, a potent cocktail containing around 30 hormones and chemicals rushes into our system to get us ready to survive. In most circumstances, we metabolize this cocktail within 12-30 hours and go on about our lives.

Everyone has a threshold for how much of the fight-or-flight cocktail their body can tolerate without a problem. PTSD develops when an event causes the body to flood the system with more of the cocktail than it can tolerate. For example, a typical combat situation may result in 10-12 doses of the fight-or-flight cocktail within ten minutes, and that could put a service member over their body’s threshold.

Once an individual has gone over their threshold, their body adapts by making changes in the nervous system’s wiring. The result is a highly active system that perceives threats more often and more intensely than someone without PTSD. Therefore, trauma survivors spend a great deal of time in a fight-or-flight state, even when there is no present danger. Those who are experiencing PTSD symptoms are feeling the effects of a body that is hell-bent on their survival.

The bad news is that time does not heal PTSD. The trauma survivor’s overactive nervous system causes the brain to change over time. The part of the brain responsible for triggering fight-or-flight increases in volume and becomes hyperactive while the part that regulates emotions loses volume and becomes less activated. Therefore, some would argue that time makes untreated PTSD worse. This is why there’s no shame in seeking treatment many years after the traumatic event. Even the most strong-willed trauma survivors aren’t able to will away PTSD with brute force.

The good news is that you can learn to master your nervous system and bring it back into balance, and a good trauma professional can teach you how. There are also highly effective tools that therapists can use to clear up intrusive memories, flashbacks, and nightmares. You don’t have to feel this way forever.

If you are a combat veteran experiencing PTSD symptoms, we can help with our no-cost, confidential Post-traumatic Growth Program. A formal diagnosis or disability rating is not required. You can learn more at If you are interested in our new virtual program or would like a check-in with an ORWF Clinician, please visit

For a directory of therapists in your area, visit