PTSD: A Very Modern Trauma

ptsd illustrationWe've been familiar with the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder since the Vietnam War. The diagnosis of PTSD revolves around the presence of trauma and symptoms that include "intrusive memories, hyper-arousal, and avoidance of reminders or emotional numbing." Most of us figured it was a modern name for a condition once called shell shock, battle fatigue, or something else even further back in time.

But until now, few studies have systematically looked for PTSD or post-trauma reactions in the older historical record. Two recent studies have done exactly this, however, and found no evidence for a historical syndrome equivalent to PTSD.

A study just published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders looked at the extensive medical records for soldiers in the American Civil War, whose mortality rate was about 50-80 greater than modern soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In other words, there would have been many more having terrifying experiences but despite the higher rates of trauma and mentions of other mental problems, there is virtually no mention of anything like the intrusive thoughts or flashbacks of PTSD.

A different study looked at even older records, going back to antiquity, and found the same lack of specific symptoms that designate PTSD. It may be truly a unique and modern malady. Could it be because our modern lives are different, or maybe modern warfare is different, or could it be even our brains that are different today? A post at Mind Hacks has links to the original research papers. Link -via Boing Boing


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"Battle Fatigue" and "Shell Shock" were well known in the past. Psychological conditions weren't often treated as medical conditions and would not be recorded in medical records. Ambrose Bierce, a civil war veteran, wrote that he had "“visions of the dead and dying” years after the war. We'd call those flashbacks, he wouldn't.

It's the same thing, just being expressed in different ways according to culture.
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Good point. Our frame of reference is different from that of those warriors of the past. It might be interesting to survey the incidence of PTSD, using the same standard of diagnosis, in different cultures.
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Could all of this be because we're far more separated from death in our daily lives nows? My understanding is that 150-200 years ago, people saw people die. They had to clean and care for the bodies themselves. They would have natural decomposition. Now, the only people who really see that are our soldiers. Our lives are much easier now, all things considered.

So, if you aren't used to seeing death and disease, it would be more shocking, I'd wager.
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