Ask the Expert, Brian Klassen, PhD: How Do I Handle the Weight of My Experiences from War?

The weight of my experiences from what I saw and did in Afghanistan is sometimes too much to bear. People keep telling me to talk or journal about it. But what if I start sharing—even on paper—and it gets worse? The thought terrifies me. I know I need to deal with my PTSD but don’t know how. What do you suggest? Dr. Klassen answers your questions about mental health treatment.

Brian Klassen, PhD, is the Clinical Director of the Road Home Program, part of the Wounded Warrior Project's Warrior Care Network.

For information about treatments for PTSD please visit The Treatment Hub.

Hi, I’m Dr. Brian Klassen and I’m a clinical psychologist. Here’s our question: “The weight of my experiences from what I saw and did in Afghanistan is too much to bear sometimes. People tell me to talk about what I went through, or to write it all down in a notebook, but both of those terrify me. What if I do start sharing with others or on paper and it makes me get worse? I don’t know how to deal with my PTSD, but I know I need to do something. What do you suggest?”

This is a great question and I think illustrates really well the dilemma that a lot of service members and veterans come into mental health treatment with. Is, a lot of them refer to opening up and processing their traumas as something like opening Pandora’s Box. Right? Like it’s sort of like neat and contained now.

You’ve kind of done a lot of work to cordon it off, or put these memories or emotions kind of deep in the mental basement. And although it’s leading to a lot of problems like feeling numb or disconnected from others or even yourself, it’s sort of the price you have to pay, because you don’t know if opening that box will make things worse.

I’m here to confidently say, and this is based on my years of experience with treating veterans and service members, is also many, many research articles have documented this as well. That in the majority of experiences, you actually get some pretty quick relief from talking about or even writing about traumatic experiences.

I think that the difficulty is, is that it does feel hard, it does feel difficult, it is extremely unpleasant. Which is why I think the supportive relationship of like a friend or family member, a trusted member of the clergy, a therapist, can kind of help you get over the hump so to speak, of beginning to open up and kind of share these experiences. But I’m here to unequivocally say it’s helpful in the vast majority of cases and I think something to think seriously about doing to get some relief. Thank you for the question.

BrainLine is powered in part by Wounded Warrior Project, to honor and empower post-9/11 inured service members, veterans, and their families.

Posted on BrainLine October 12, 2021. Reviewed October 12, 2021.

About the author: Brian Klassen, PhD

Brian Klassen, Ph.D., is the Clinical Director for The Road Home Program: The National Center of Excellence for Veterans and Their Families at Rush University in Chicago, Illinois. Brian spent his formative years training at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, completing rotations in chronic pain management, residential substance use disorder treatment, and PTSD. Brian has special expertise in providing front-line treatments for PTSD, including Prolonged Exposure and Cognitive Processing Therapy.

Headshot of Dr. Brian Klassen