Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has perhaps existed as long as mankind has experienced trauma. It was finally recognized as a diagnosable condition in 1980, when the American Psychological Association included it in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for mental health practitioners.1
Despite the length of time it took for medical practitioners to formally recognize the condition, the disorder has been evidenced throughout history. As a result of all types of trauma, from natural disasters, to assault, or soldiers in battle, PTSD has been recognized as a human response to trauma and has been known by a number of explanations throughout history.
Early Recognition of PTSD: Combat and Beyond
Mentions of combat stress can be found over 2,000 years ago in historical literature, and one of the first mentions can be found in a story of the battle of Marathon by Herodotus in fifth century Ancient Greece. Ancient tales of battle trauma and flashback-like dreams were documented by Hippocrates (4607-377 BC), and Lucretius in the poem De Rerum Natura, which was written in 50 BC.2
Later, PTSD flashbacks and nightmares that were related to battle experience could be found in documentation of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1337 to 1453). Even Shakespeare alluded to it in various plays, including his play Romeo and Juliet, in which Mercutio tells a lengthy account of Queen Mab, a character who creates dreams in the minds of men; who would wake men through dreams of battle and death.2
PTSD in the 1800s
By the 1800s, mentions of PTSD in relation to combat and war zone participation were merely characterized as “battle exhaustion” or “soldier’s fatigue” — a reference to the repeated forays into battle by traumatized soldiers, resulting in exhaustion of the body’s adrenaline-fueled responses, particularly during long engagements with daily fire. In fact, PTSD was often referred to as the “thousand-yard stare,” a reference to the blank look and dissociated demeanor of traumatized soldiers.2
In 1887 at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, physician Jean-Martin Charcot documented that traumatic experience could later lead to “hysterical attacks” that might happen years after the trauma.3
U.S. soldiers who fought in the gruesome battles of the Civil War were no exception. Today, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine is still curating and uncovering information about PTSD related to the U.S. Civil War through an exhibit on PTSD and suicide in the 1860s and beyond.4
PTSD did not only occur in combat. Difficult living conditions gave way to trauma through other experiences. PTSD symptoms became recognized in history under a host of different names was also referred to as “railway spine” during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to describe psychological responses in those who witnessed or endured graphic railroad accidents.
By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the “talking cure,” as popularized by Sigmund Freud, began as a method to treat symptoms that may have been caused by PTSD. These early therapeutic interventions were the first step toward helping people who had survived traumatic events.3
PTSD in the 1900s and Modern Day
WWI brought a new awareness of traumatic effects of war. In 1915, the term “shell shock” was introduced to medical literature. This condition described the same symptoms as PTSD and went on to become the predecessor of the official diagnosis. Treatments for shell shock ranged from psychoanalysis to drastic and unproven “treatments” of electric shocks.
By the 1950s, treatments became more humane, but many people would not admit to any trauma symptoms due to the stigma surrounding mental illness. Treatments improved through the advent of group therapy and newly created psychotropic medications.3
Modern definitions of PTSD gained national spotlight in the 1970s, as countless Vietnam veterans began experiencing a host of psychological problems, many persisting upon their return home.
Social movements in the 1970s began to study Holocaust survivors, Vietnam veterans, and survivors of domestic abuse. In 1974, a two-person team of psychologist Ann Wolbert Burgess and sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom coined the term, “Rape Trauma Syndrome” to describe a variant of PTSD experienced by women who had undergone the harrowing experience of sexual assault — marked by three phases of stress responses.
This research was a pioneering force in drawing attention to the effects of trauma. These research and social efforts gave way to further understanding and the official description of PTSD in 1980. At that time, post-traumatic stress disorder was finally adopted into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), considered the definitive text for diagnosis among those in the psychological professions.
In the 1990s, new treatments for PTSD began to crop up. Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), newer generations of medications, and new approaches to therapy have all been continually developing in the last 20-30 years.3
Understanding PTSD in Your Life
If you or someone you love has experienced a trauma and would like to learn more about modern treatment and support, The Oaks can help. Our dedicated team of treatment experts can help you and those you love get back to feeling good again, despite past traumas. Now, more than ever, it is possible to heal from PTSD. Call us at 901-350-4575 to learn more.
1 National Institute of Health. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 30 June 2018.
2 Crocq, M., et.al. From shell shock and war neurosis to posttraumatic stress disorder: a history of psychotraumatology. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. 2000.
3 Green, M. The History of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and How We Treat it. Newsweek. 23 Mar 2017.
4 Horwitz, T. Did Civil War Soldiers Have PTSD? Smithsonian. Jan 2018
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