Combat Addiction: Fact or Fiction?

Combat Soldier
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Reece Lodder
By Marji Campbell, Ph.D., Associate Director of Psychological Health Research, Deployment Health Clinical Center
April 10, 2017

Do you have a patient whose PTSD just doesn’t seem to get better? Have you treated someone who looks to relive combat experiences through combat-like activities or who engages in high risk activities which provide a rush? Is it possible that combat could be addictive?

Combat experiences vary greatly and impact service members in diverse ways. For many combat is much more than a series of negative or distressing events. It’s an extremely arousing experience that stimulates powerful and exciting memories of performing one’s duties with great competence while feeling somewhat omnipotent at the same time. While the combat environment may yield many traumatic episodes, it is often full of exhilarating encounters.

The combination of thrilling events and gruesome outcomes can sometimes leave one feeling guilty about their emotional reactions to combat. Some veterans have reported that combat is the ultimate rush; they feel bored or empty without that excitement. Because the combat rush feels so good, both psychologically and physically, many combat veterans want to re-experience that powerful feeling, similar to an addictive high. Re-experiencing those intense combat highs may be followed by experiencing depressing lows, just like the cycle of addiction. Many veterans have described the combat high as better than any drug they’ve experienced.

Is there evidence that supports the concept of combat addiction? In a nutshell, there is no empirical research base, but articles related to the topic began to appear in the literature after Vietnam. A recent pilot study termed the phenomenon combat attachment and indicated that combat veterans diagnosed with PTSD may spend more time re-experiencing exciting, positive combat-related events, accompanied by the ‘adrenaline rush,’ than they spend re-experiencing distressing, negative combat events. Furthermore, combat attachment behaviors appeared to demonstrate addictive features and were associated with impaired functioning.

Combat attachment behaviors can include playing combat-related videogames for hours, watching war movies, sharing combat stories with other combat veterans, going through one’s own combat photos and videos, or viewing combat-related Facebook posts and YouTube videos. Combat attachment even involves just thinking about, or daydreaming about combat, often when individuals are bored or involved in routine tasks, such as driving or working out.

So, what makes these behaviors different from “normal” military leisure behaviors? The answer lies in the amped up adrenaline rush the activity provides. Following deployment, these activities become more frequent, more intense, and last longer; also some become more compulsively serious with less social interaction and enjoyment.

Additional research is needed to help us better understand combat attachment behaviors and their potential relationship to combat PTSD and other post-deployment conditions.


The views expressed in Clinician's Corner blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Deployment Health Clinical Center or Department of Defense.


Comments

  • This is how I live my life work in hostile areas because I believe that if no-one does it who will. I agree I get a rush hearing gunfire yelling screaming. That's what I was put on this earth to take care of.

  • My clients report the same types of rushes in their experiences of combat and their time in service in general.

    When the 'good' memory stops, a repetitive memory begins that they have no control over causing it play over and over in their head. Many labels can be attached to this behavior.

    When the client goes through a CR Session over Skype with one of my CR Practitioners, we are able to help them find what appears to be a dissociative amnesic memory. Once found, we then take them through a neutralization sequence that removes the emotional tie to the memory.

    The result is other repetitive thoughts the client is unable to control also stop and can be controlled.

    Repetitive Behavior Cellular Regression™ (CR Process) et.al. 2016

  • Interesting article. I always have wondered if this behavior was the effect from the cause of combat and combat stress. As someone who has served and has been there. I'm always aware of my surroundings and things that are going on. I feel that we all can get better by being with positive people and doing positive things for other people. Also it has helped me by writing in my journal. I can't tell how many journals I've been through. Thank you for sharing this.

  • There is a rush in getting together with other combat vets and talking about combat, but there is a lot of unregulated emotions along with the adrenaline rush. This all is modulated in exposure therapy. It does not work for all. Most meds get in the way of allowing this modulated exposure. I believe the integration of the trauma and possible neurogenesis may be inhibited for some when on meds for PTSD. For me, I love the adrenaline and get some of it by being a musician and playing live, sometimes going to open jam sessions in clubs and learning the song right on stage in front of an audience in quick time not knowing how its going to come out. It has helped me in my healing better than any drug and along with many years of therapy has really helped me sublimate and regulate my adrenaline. Like many drugs, the addiction happens with adrenaline when it is not disciplined, modulated, and allowed but regulated, at least in my opinion, and experience personally, and as a therapist with other combat vets for 25 years.

  • Very insiteful and factual study sans relief. The VA keeps telling me that this goes away over time.. Not the case, it's not a switch you can turn on and off. The sting of Battle feels good, and I couldn't imagine living without Hyperarousal, especially in today's world. The anachronism of the Combat Soldier......

  • Reminds me of playing paintball with a Vietnam-conflict combat veteran. He did a great job of teaching tactics, and squad leadership, though the intensity of his anger during the game was a little over the top.

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The views expressed in Clinician's Corner blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Deployment Health Clinical Center or Department of Defense.