Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the term used to describe a myriad of symptoms which occur after a tragic event or an event that the mind perceives as being tragic. It is a misunderstood disorder that, historically, was applied to members of the military who had been in combat and had difficulty readjusting to civilian life. Only recently has it risen from the ranks of “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” to the level of a recognized illness.
The term PTSD is no longer used only for military personnel. It applies to anyone who has seen or experienced a tragedy firsthand and exhibits the onset of anxiety attacks within the six months following a major traumatic event. Anxiety attacks or panic attacks may occur in the form of “flashbacks” or nightmares and could be triggered by something as simple as the anniversary of the event.
The term “shell shock” was coined to describe the afflictions displayed by soldiers returning from war in the early 1900s, especially World War I. Psychological treatments were still in their infancy and it was not uncommon for disturbed patients who exhibited irrational behaviors to be labeled as a “lunatic” and sent off to an asylum. A soldier returning home with a case of shell shock was perceived as a mental case. He was said to have lost his ability to reason or lost his senses.
Each case of shell shock presented itself differently and sorting them individually only served to convince physicians of the day that they were dealing with emotional disorders and not textbook illnesses. Physicians witnessed soldiers standing at attention by their beds to answer health questions, soldiers dealing with insomnia, nightmares, depression, eating disorders, digestive upsets, irritability, irrational thinking and a plethora of other irregularities. Grouping those shell shock cases together produced a global conclusion that soldiers were coming home “sick in the head” and only the care and understanding of those close to them would help the victim heal.
It was generally accepted that everyone else had to understand and cope with the patient who was required to do nothing in particular to help himself. After all, he had been thrust into a situation that provoked many emotional reactions on a continuous basis and his adrenalin was flowing constantly. He had not chosen that situation and, therefore, could not be expected to take the initiative to restore his own well-being. The treatment was simply a strong dose of firmness and sympathy by those who were close to him.
Shell shock is still a term that is used today, although sparsely. As soldiers began returning to the states after their tour of duty, the symptoms of depression, insomnia, headache and sensitivity to noise were seen as a sign of fatigue. He was very tired from the pace and the alertness required in combat.
The major battles of war received names – Battle of the Bulge, Invasion of Normandy, Pearl Harbor – and the resulting pain and suffering should rightly have a name. The affliction was still poorly understood and could only be described and treated based on observation. Researchers and physicians were still studying individual cases in an attempt to establish an understanding of the personality who was most likely to suffer from battle fatigue.
Battle fatigue was also observed in patients who had observed or survived a serious accident or injury. They also were showing signs of depression, sleeplessness, headache, fear of the unknown, irritability, nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks. Research had advanced to the point where physicians now had a list of behaviors that matched the label of battle fatigue. However, the patient felt helpless to help himself and did not need to take the initiative for the treatment he needed.
Self-destructive behaviors became more apparent. Alcoholism, gambling and domestic abuse were most often observed. The children of the battle fatigue victims were not considered in the overall scenario. They began to act out similar behaviors of battle fatigue that were very real. This was the result of dealing with the cruelty inflicted by the drunken parent, their growing feeling of injustice and guilt associated with being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This mental abuse by a nervous, paranoid or neurotic parent is a terrifying experience for any child. They ultimately become victims of the victims of battle fatigue.
PTSD As a Diagnosis
Post Traumatic Stress came to the forefront in the 1970s as veterans of the Vietnam War arrived home with adjustment problems that led to poor relationships, self-destructive behaviors and serious illness. A large number of the veterans were 100% disabled from their injuries. The physical disabilities could be treated, but few realized that emotional disabilities from post traumatic stress disorder could linger for a lifetime.
Post traumatic stress disorder remains in the limelight of health research even today. The symptoms can affect those who experience sudden and devastating events: emergency crews, rescue workers, severe weather victims and survivors of a serious accident or injury.
The new millennium brought hundreds of thousands of people to seek PTSD treatment resulting from the 9/11 tragedies. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita affected many more in the same way. The 2008 California fires have caused shock, anger, fear, insecurity, guilt, nervousness and many other PTSD symptoms to surface in those people directly affected by this disastrous and recurring event.
PTSD is now diagnosed earlier and intervention begins sooner. The perception of weakness that was attributed to those seeking help in the past is no longer prevalent. For that, we should all be thankful.
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