A Hypnotherapist’s View: Combat Stress
The mind is born with two responses to a threat: fight and flight, marshaled by the survival instinct in the primitive part of the brain. Fight and flight are meant to be temporary. In nature, the mind-body quickly returns to rest to heal, grow, and learn.
The experiences that we survive without harm are accepted by the mind-body – it is the unknown that is uncomfortable.
The early mind has two basic emotions: euphoria and fear. These emotions cause us to see experiences as “good” or “bad.” Both reactions have survival benefit: euphoria builds social bonding while fear guides our self-preservation. The newborn learns from their parents how to balance the two. This control comes from the thinking part of our brain, which learns to intervene in the activation of the fight/flight response.
Around eight years of age, as we venture out into the world alone, unknowns threaten to overwhelm us. To control the exposure of the mind-body to new experiences, the brain develops a barrier called the critical mind. Atop the barrier is the conscious mind that uses logic, reason, and analysis to test information. Below the barrier is the subconscious mind that adapts the body to meet the demands placed upon it. While our ego (or self) lives in the conscious mind, the subconscious does seven times as much work for us. When there is a conflict between our conscious goals and subconscious motivations, the subconscious generally wins.
Military training develops mechanisms in the conscious mind to control the fight/flight response. An important element of training is to sustain readiness to fight while waiting for orders from superiors. This creates anxiety in the mind while maintaining heightened readiness in the body. The professional warrior is capable of this self-control. It is a point of pride.
In deployment, that skill is confronted with the ugly reality of combat. The years of moral guidance and training weaken. The primitive mind takes over and those that survive receive deep validation of their reliance upon violence. Each experience chips away at the control of the conscious, until a particularly intense experience reverses the tide. The conscious and subconscious may join in forcing the warrior into a nearly permanent state of fight and flight. When death seems inevitable, however, an even more primitive solution arises: the psychic casualty freezes in place, conserving energy in the hope that an escape will present itself.