Military Families & Trauma
There are many wonderful aspects of growing up in a military family, but if trauma is “something negative that
happens to a person over which they have no control,” a military family’s life can be filled with lots of trauma,
too – and not just war-related. Multiple moves, parental absence, pressures to subvert personal needs for the
sake of the Mission can all take their toll on soldiers, spouses, and children. These experiences can cause some
individuals to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other symptoms of anxiety, including
depression. Military families may appear tough and resilient on the outside, but that may not accurately reflect
what’s going on inside. Understanding trauma may be one of the most important steps you can take to helping
your family lead full and satisfying lives before, during, and after deployment.
Warning - Disclaimer
The information in this handout is intended to stimulate ideas, conversation and research. It is NOT intended as
a substitute for consultation with health care professionals. Each individual’s health concerns should be
evaluated by a qualified professional.
The Definition of Trauma
Understanding how the brain and body process, remember, and store traumatic events is the key to healing
trauma. Remember – there is no right or wrong reaction to trauma! What is traumatic to one person may not
be traumatic to another, depending on a multitude of issues, including old childhood traumas. Please leave your
judgments at the door.
“Psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless. At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered
helpless by overwhelming force. Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give
people a sense of control, connection and meaning.” - Judith Herman, MD, Trauma and Recovery
How Memory is Stored in the Brain & Body
The brain stores memories of traumatic and non-traumatic events in different ways. When a traumatic event
happens, the brain releases hormones that prepare the body to take defensive action – via fight or flight or
freeze (if the person can’t fight or run away). The way the body responds is automatic, a person can’t “choose”
which way to react under stress. Once the traumatic event is over, the brain releases cortisol that tells the body
the event is over and they can return to normal. Something in this process goes wrong with those who develop
PTSD. Their brain/body doesn’t know the traumatic event is over. The memory continues to float free in the
brain, keeping them in an agitated state, which can take a massive toll on their body.
PTSD is “memory gone awry.” - Babette Rothschild, The Body Remembers
Common Reactions to Trauma
The following is a partial list of reactions to trauma, from Dena Rosenbloom and Mary Beth Williams’ book, Life
After Trauma: A Workbook for Healing. If any of these symptoms last more than a month and your soldier,
spouse, or child is not functioning as well at home, work/school or in their relationships, seek professional help.
Physical Reactions: nervous, jumpy, tense; upset stomach; panic attacks; teeth grinding; fatigue
Mental Reactions: hypervigilance; dissociation; can’t concentrate/remember; intrusive images; nightmares
Emotional Reactions: fearful; depressed; guilty; angry; numb; loss of trust; helpless; emotional distance
Behavior Reactions: withdrawn; easily startled; confrontational/extremely emotional; change in eating/ grooming
habits; restless; hurting self (cutting); poor grades; self-medicating (alcohol/ drugs/food)