Service members and veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may have an overactive “fight or flight” response, military mental-health experts say.

“It is our body’s reaction to determine if we need to fight or flee,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jorielle Houston, who heads the practice-based implementation network for the Defense Department’s Deployment Health Center. “A series of neural and physiological mechanisms rapidly activate the nervous system to release stress hormones [adrenaline] that helps us to mobilize and avoid harm. It is an adaptive, instinctive response,” she said.

The symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Persistent re-experience of traumatic events, to include nightmares, flashbacks, or other distress
  • Avoidance of trauma-related stimuli
  • Trauma-related arousal and reactions

“When a separate stress reaction happens, people with PTSD are likely to have an increased flight or fight response. Research suggests that combat veterans have overactive fight or flight responses, which means higher adrenaline levels and less control of their heart rate in response to blood pressure changes,” Houston said.

People who experience “fight or flight” may notice that their breathing increases or becomes shallow. Their heart rate increases, pupils dilate, senses sharpen, and digestive system could slow to a complete halt. They may feel a sense of heightened awareness, aggression, worry and anxiety.

If ignored, health experts say, PTSD can trigger other more serious health issues – such as high blood pressure, heart disease or stroke.

The Pentagon’s Defense Centers of Excellence (DCOE) urges anyone suffering from PTSD, or who has a family member with the condition, to take advantage of the available help. The agency’s web site, www.dcoe.mil, has several links. The agency has a 24-hour outrach hotline, at (866) 966-1020.

To reach DCOE by email, use this address: resources@dcoeoutreach.org. A live chat is available as well at realwarriors.net/livechat. Several apps for electronic devices – including Breathe2Relax and PTSD Coach – could help.