The History of PTSD

Instructor: Laura Gray

Laura has taught at the secondary and tertiary levels for 20+ years and has a Ph.D. in Instructional Design for Online Learning.

In this lesson, we will explore the history of post-traumatic stress disorder. Although it has likely existed since humans first walked the earth, it has only recently been acknowledged and described.

What is PTSD

PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. Although humans have been suffering from this condition for thousands of years, it wasn't until the 1980s that doctors began providing individuals with a formal diagnosis. To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must meet the following criteria:

  • Extremely stressing triggering criteria, or an event that occurred to bring it on
  • Intrusive recollection criterion, or a reliving of an event over and over
  • Avoidance criterion, or an attempt to avoid similarly stressful situations
  • Mood criterion, or negative feelings about an event and/or about oneself
  • Reactivity criterion, or reactions of anxiety or panic for no apparent reason
  • Presence of the preceding criterion for over one month
  • Significant social or occupational impairment
  • Symptoms are not due to use of medication, drug abuse, or an illness

That's a great deal of criteria, isn't it? And you may think that very few people meet all of those exclusions and other descriptions of PTSD. Believe it or not, though, many people have been diagnosed with PTSD. In fact, some estimates state that anywhere from 4%-10% of the American population is walking around with some form of PTSD at any given time! Of course, in war-torn areas, this estimate is much, much higher.

Early Evidence of PTSD

Early humans who were chased by wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers may have suffered from the effects of these traumatic events. 'Deuteronomy', a book in the Bible, speaks of soldiers removed from the front lines because of 'nervous breakdowns.' In addition, the Epic of Gilgamesh contains descriptions of post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Jean Froissart, an observer of the Hundred Years War (1337-1400), noted that soldiers were awakened in their sleep by nightmares of war. In Act I of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, written around 1595, we also find references to night terrors and frightening recollections of war. In 18th century Europe, very vivid accounts exist of soldiers having violent and panicked reactions in battle, even though they were not actually physically harmed.

By the 19th century, we see accounts of PTSD symptoms resulting from events other than war. For example, once railroads were built, railway disasters occurred, and people suffered emotional shock, or 'hysteria,' from events such as these. In the mid-1800's, the German physician, Hermann Oppenheim, described a kind of traumatic neurosis, or PTSD symptoms, that arose as a result of railway accidents; by the late 1800's, doctors attributed the condition to other events as well.

PTSD in the 20th Century

By 1907, Honigman, a German psychiatrist, coined the term 'war neurosis' to refer to symptoms that appeared as a result of battle. By World War I, doctors in both Europe and the United States routinely described symptoms like convulsions, deafness, muteness, and tremors. Some patients suffering from PTSD lost consciousness or had trouble standing or walking. Common treatment options for 'shell shock' included faradization, or use of an electrical current.

Some doctors practicing during World War I wondered if the mental symptoms that accompanied shell shock were real or imagined by soldiers hoping to get away from the battlefield! By the time the United States formally entered the Vietnam War in the 1960s, delayed symptoms of PTSD were showing up in a record number of returning soldiers. According to one statistic, of the 700,000 soldiers who returned from Vietnam, nearly one fourth required some type of psychiatric attention. Finally, by 1980, PTSD finally had an 'official' name!

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