Professor in documentary on stress among veterans

By Curt Yeomans


Men and women frequently talk with Catherine Deering about their fears of driving any vehicle.

If they can muster the courage to drive a vehicle, they are afraid to drive on, or under, a bridge. They alter their driving routes in order to avoid the obstacle.

These men and women are America's veterans of the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, who have been traumatized by the constant threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The cause of this almost paralyzing fear is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD.

"PTSD is a problem that develops after a person experiences a traumatic event," Deering said. "It's caused by something that threatened a person's life or safety, or something that caused a great deal of trauma for a person, like a rape, or a car accident."

Documentary filmmaker John Clower interviewed Deering on Aug. 20, for an upcoming, untitled Georgia Public Television (GPTV) program on PTSD. No air date has been set for the program.

Deering, a 17-year professor of Psychology at Clayton State University, began working with war veterans at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Atlanta 18 years ago as an intern and a doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island. After her internship ended, she became a part-time consultant at the medical center, and continues to work with veterans coping with PTSD.

"[PTSD] affects the whole family because the person experiences major changes, and family members often do not understand what is going on," Deering said. "People will tell them to move on, to put the traumatic event out of their minds, but they can't because the memories come back in the person's sleep. It intrudes on them during the day in a way that can't be avoided."

Deering said there are three main symptoms of PTSD. The first is the re-experiencing symptoms, such as intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares. The second is the hyper-arousal symptoms, such as hyper vigilance; irritability; difficulty sleeping; suspiciousness and extreme startled reactions.

The third symptom includes emotion-numbing, "where a person avoids situations which may trigger memories of the traumatic event," Deering said. An example of this would be the veterans who are afraid to drive any vehicles.

Deering said PTSD is disruptive to a person's life because symptoms show up unexpectedly, and in some cases, the person has to alter his or her daily pattern to avoid situations that may trigger memories of traumatic events. Also, "some Vietnam veterans avoid going to barbecues because the smell of cooking meat might remind them of situations where they had to see a lot of dead, burned bodies," Deering said. "Some may also avoid Asian restaurants. If they see Asian people, it may trigger memories of being in Vietnam."

Deering said the two most important things people need to know about PTSD are its symptoms, and that it can be treated, if identified early on. One form of treatment is exposure therapy, where the person talks about the traumatic event, and re-experiences it with the assistance of a trained therapist.

Another form of treatment is controlled behavioral therapy, where the person changes the way he, or she, thinks about him or herself, and engages in a behavior plan which helps the person overcome the symptoms. The third form of treatment is antidepressants, which raise the level of serotonin in a person's brain.

"If PTSD is diagnosed and treated early on, we can see some significant results," Deering said.