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The Unexpected Loneliness of Combat Vets and POWs with PTSD

The loneliness of returning home after trauma

Combat veterans and prisoners of war who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder face many expected challenges when returning home and attempting to reintegrate into civilian life. But the one emotional injury we might not expect them to encounter is loneliness. A new study found many returning veterans, POWs and others with severe PTSD suffer from a unique kind of loneliness, one that begins only once they are again surrounded by family and loved ones.

Chronic and severe loneliness of any kind has a huge impact on our mental and physical health and is associated with major health risks both for civilians as well as for military personnel (read Why Loneliness Is a Trap and How to Break Free here). Now a new study titled Loneliness and Isolation in Life-Stories of Israeli Veterans of Combat and Captivity by researchers Jacob Y. Stein and Rivka Tuval-Mashiach of Bar Ilan University sheds light on the unique and unexpected challenges that loneliness presents for combat veterans and ex-prisoners-of-war (POWs).

The researchers investigated the narratives of a group of these veterans about their experiences, both while serving and upon returning to civilian life, and found loneliness was a central theme. However, the loneliness and emotional challenges they faced while serving in traumatic combat situations and during captivity was only one aspect of the overall psychological ordeal they faced, as they encountered a severe and different kind of loneliness after they returned home.

As One Type of Loneliness Ends, Another Begins

Loneliness is typically defined as having a subjective sense of being emotionally or socially isolated or disconnected. One feels a significant qualitative lack of deep emotional bonds with others and/or a lack of meaningful social connections in one’s daily life. Indeed, one can be married or seemingly have many friends and acquaintances yet still feel disconnected from them (read Are You Married but Lonely here).

The researchers in the current study found that upon returning home, the core of isolation experienced by the combat veterans and ex-POWs was qualitatively different than that experienced by people who had not been through severe ongoing trauma. Rather than primarily emotional or social, the isolation these veterans felt was something the researchers characterized as Experiential Loneliness. They might have had access to deep emotional and social bonds from family and loved ones, but what they lackedwhat they truly yearned forwas to feel understood. They wanted others to truly know what they went through, to feel what they felt as they struggled to reintegrate back into a civilian life. Yet the circumstances and experiences they suffered were so extraordinary, they felt it was practically impossible for anyone who had not been through such an experience themseves to be able to "get it"—to be able to know.

As a result, the soldiers in the study felt what many combat veterans and ex-POWs feel upon their return to civilian life, that they were experiencing a different world than those around them, one in which people went about their lives as they always had when for them everything was different—everything had changed.

In other words, although the soldiers in the study craved true empathy from others, they felt it was impossible for their friends and loved ones to offer it meaningfully because they couldn’t possibly understand the profound ways in which their experiences impacted every moment of their waking lives (not to mention their dreams and nightmares). Thus, despite the best efforts and intentions of those around them, they felt like aliens in their communities, strangers in a familiar land. They went through the motions of "ordinary" life but did so with a marked sense of unreality.

It is these feelings that often make combat veterans (especially those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), ex-POWs and probably survivors of other forms of severe trauma feel experientially detached and removed from everyone and everything around them. These powerful feelings of experiential isolation pose the greatest obstacle to their ability to psychologically reintegrate back into society and to resume their personal lives.

The Challenge for Families and Loved Ones

The problem faced by families and loved ones of returning veterans who suffer from experiential loneliness is despite their efforts to surround them with love, affection, and support, they are likely to overlook or misinterpret why these efforts don't seem to truly get through or ease their loved ones’ torment. Family members often struggle to truly comprehend the deep feelings of disconnection that persist in their loved ones despite the love, connection and support they offer because it contradicts their traditional understanding of loneliness and what eases it.

This is also why many veterans and those who suffer from PTSD often feel it is only other veterans, ex-POWs or survivors of similar circumstances that are capable of truly understanding them. They believe only someone who has suffered and struggled as they do can connect to the experiences and feelings they have about reintegrating back into civilian society and comprehend the psychological and emotional challenges they face in doing so.

As difficult as it might be, families and friends of returning veterans, POWs and others with severe PTSD need to understand these challenges and find ways to not take the isolation their loved ones might feel too 'personally'. By being patient and affording theie loved ones time to work through these issues and overcome them as best they can, they can do much to ease their integration back into civilian life.

View my short and quite personal TEDx talk about Psychological Health here:

For more about how to heal from loss and trauma check out chapter 2 and for how to recover from loneliness (of the ‘regular kind) chapter 3 in my book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).

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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch

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