Memorial Day can be a painful trigger for veterans

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Photo credit U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.

For most veterans, Memorial Day naturally brings about a wave of emotions, reminded of our brothers and sisters in arms who've made the ultimate sacrifice.  While civilians are celebrating the start of summer and barbecue season, we military veterans understand the solemnity of the observance.

But the day can be especially daunting for veterans with post-traumatic stress (PTS). 

Memorial Day – which is dedicated to remembering the fallen – can trigger painful memories, which for vets with PTS, may lead to serious emotional distress.

"For many veterans, Memorial Day brings a sharp increase not only of trauma memories, but also feelings of acute grief and loss, and in some cases, a heavy burden of survivor guilt.," says Dr. Shauna Springer, the Senior Director of TAPS Suicide Prevention Initiatives.

If your friend or family member is a veteran who might be triggered, Springer suggests that you validate and empathize with their feelings.

"Rather than looking for signs of negative impacts around Memorial Day, it is often helpful to proactively support the veterans in our lives," Springer told Connecting Vets.  "We can say something like, 'I will never forget the service and sacrifice of our fallen' or 'I stand with you in grieving the loss of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.'"

It's not just what you say, she says, but what you do.
"More than anything you can say though, taking action to stand with veterans on Memorial Day is critical. Asking the veterans in your life how you can honor the fallen together and then doing this with them actively helps reintegrate our veterans back into society,Springer said.

These triggers can lead to the following feelings, according to Dr. Daniella David, the PTS program director at the Miami VA Medical Center.

▪ Significant emotional distress

▪ Negative beliefs about oneself and the world, leading to mistrust of others

▪ Persistent feelings of guilt, shame, self-blame and anger

▪ Isolation from friends, family and social activities

▪ Employing unhealthy coping mechanisms such as using alcohol and illegal drugs

▪ Symptoms of increased arousal, including irritability and anger management problems

▪ Sleep issues

▪ Engaging in high-risk behaviors

For resources, go to our Find Help - Mental Health page. 

If you’re a veteran in crisis or concerned about one, VA responders are standing by to help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. VA Crisis Line:1-800-273-8255, press 1.