The Unexpected Loneliness of Combat Vets and POWs with PTSD

Thanks and a hat tip to John T…..

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.

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