Post-traumatic stress disorder is not a new condition to humanity. In fact, the symptoms of PTSD have been recorded for quite some time now. The earliest records were found on cuneiform tablets that date back approximately three thousand years ago during the Assyrian dynasty (1300-609 BC) in ancient Mesopotamia. Today, this area is known as Iraq. Some of the symptoms observed during that time were flashbacks, sleep disturbance, and low mood. However, as is common in ancient and indigenous cultures, the Mesopotamians explained these symptoms in a mythical way. The disorder was described as an affliction brought about by the spirit of the enemies the patient had killed during battles.
There also accounts from ancient Greece dating back to 490 B.C. from Herodotus, and then hundreds of years later during Shakespeare’s time that describes PTSD. Heroes and heroines throughout the world’s literature have similarly exhibited what we now know as PTSD.
The History of PTSD in the United States
Nowadays, it is recognized that PTSD is not exclusive to soldiers; it can plague your average civilian too. It appears that in Western society, it took industrial-scale warfare to trigger a field of research dedicated to understanding and treating the psychological damage that is caused by experiencing trauma. World War I brought the debilitating effects of war to the forefront, as new battle tactics in aerial combat and chemical warfare on such a large scale terrified soldiers; the new realities of war were more than just disturbing.
By WWII, it was recognized that, yes, war does have a negative impact on the mind and body; 40% of all discharges during that time were attributed to combat fatigue (aka PTSD). Nevertheless, combat fatigue was still stigmatized and not fully understood for what it really was, even throughout the Vietnam War. In fact, PTSD symptoms were attributed to individual weaknesses like traumatic neurosis rather than to a traumatic event outside of one’s control. It wasn’t until around 1980 that PTSD was established in the literature and socially accepted as a genuine psychiatric disorder caused by trauma that required compassionate and careful treatment.
Biology of PTSD
Whether you have experienced domestic abuse, the cruelties of war, or a life-changing accident, fear was likely an emotion you became all too familiar with; fear is considered the principal emotion of PTSD. It is hypothesized that such a strong and sometimes crippling emotion evolved as a survival mechanism. Fear tends to elicit defensive behavior like running away or fighting; this is also known as the fight or flight response. You can probably imagine other, more nuanced human responses like shouting, lying, avoidance behavior, and so on as a defense mechanism to fear. According to one study, predation pressure drove such defenses and has been conserved across mammal species today.
Symptoms of PTSD
For patients who have PTSD, symptoms may include:
- Intrusive thoughts
- Sleep disturbances
- Memory and concentration changes
- Startle responses
However, it should be noted that not all patients experience the same symptoms at the same intensities. A study by the National Institutes of Health hypothesized that the symptoms reported here are a “behavioral manifestation of stress-induced changes in brain structure and function.”
Stress can cause short- and long-term chemical changes in specific regions of the brain. Similar to how addiction can have lasting effects on a person’s internal reward system – and thus, one’s capacity of self-control and satisfaction – trauma-induced stress can change how the brain chemically responds to stress. This, in turn, translates into a behavioral response. The parts of the brain that experience such changes include the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. It has also been observed that in patients who have PTSD, stress hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine are higher.
In a study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, associative learning was found to potentially play a role in the severity of a stress response, even in non-life-threatening situations. Scientists are still trying to understand the underlying neurobiological mechanisms fully. Yet, some evidence suggests that the amygdala might be of particular significance as it is involved in associative learning, value encoding, and emotional responses. The theory goes that if specific people, places, or things are present during a traumatic event, these things can become associated with that event and trigger stress and negative behavioral responses even during non-threatening situations. These factors become attached to the traumatic event and require effort to be seen as benign when they are truly not a threat.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be a terrifying experience for soldiers and citizens alike. PTSD is caused by a traumatic event that may evoke painful and paralyzing flashbacks, nightmares, and exaggerated responses to people, places, and things associated with the trauma but are actually harmless. Re-integrating back into society after such an ordeal can be emotionally and physically taxing; however, this is nothing to be ashamed about. The underlying neurobiological mechanisms of PTSD are being studied, and new developments are helping to further the understanding and quality of treatment for patients. At Oceanfront Recovery, we make compassionate and effective care affordable. Our licensed therapists are trained to address our patients’ needs and put them on a clear path to recovery in our PTSD Treatment Program. If you or someone you know is also suffering from co-occurring substance abuse, our clinicians can address those concerns too; we’ve got you covered. Call Oceanfront today at (877) 279-1777 to learn more about our programs.