Research is beginning to show that one of the most important Stone Age survival mechanisms could be connected to an increasingly prevalent affliction.
In the last ten years, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD) has become more and more widely discussed. Featured in movies and on television, the ailment has typically been associated with war and soldiers, but it is also commonly diagnosed after any kind of traumatic life event, whether on a massive scale or an occurrence between one or two people.
Is this a new disease? Certainly the name “PTSD” is new, coined only in the late 20th century. But the affliction itself, although much less understood at the time, has been familiar to doctors for almost 150 years.
The syndrome was originally identified during the American Civil War (1861~65). Some soldiers began exhibiting heart palpitations, breathlessness and fatigue, but examinations showed no physical explanation for those symptoms. At the time, neurosis was assumed to be the cause.
Jacob Mendez Da Costa did not agree with that diagnosis and called these symptoms “Soldier’s Heart.” It was eventually classified as an anxiety disorder that presents with a physical manifestation of symptoms—the first building block in the formation of the disease that is the modern Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In 1980 the American Psychiatric Association recognized PTSD as a mental disorder with the primary criteria for diagnosis being “trauma” of some type. What makes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder so unique, however, is the emphasis on the actual event or events that caused the psychological break.
Originally, six criteria had to be present in order to obtain a diagnosis of PTSD: an initializing stressor, intrusive recollection, avoidance or numbing, panic-like hyper-arousal, persistence and social dysfunction. Since 1980, however, extensive research has led to instruments that help with a PTSD diagnosis, too.
Researchers working with Vietnam Veterans, rape victims and other trauma survivors on a daily basis have studied their sleep habits, inducers and treatments that were successful. They discovered that once diagnosed with PTSD the individuals often meet the criteria for other mental illness diagnoses, thus expanding room for different treatments. And they have uncovered what could be a central cause of the ailment.
By one account, fear in the moment of initial trauma triggers “many split-second changes in the body to prepare to defend against the danger or to avoid it.” This very natural response is as old as humanity and a healthy reaction meant to protect us from harm—the classic “fight-or-flight” mechanism.
In PTSD, this response is somehow changed or damaged. It continues to trigger feelings ranging from irrational stress to sheer terror long after the traumatic event and the danger has passed.
Among the symptoms to look for are flashbacks, nightmares, and signs of avoidance or depression, including loss of interest or being overly edgy. PTSD can affect children as well as adults. They may become extremely clingy to a trustworthy parent or adult or else act out the original traumatic event during playtime.
No longer an array of symptoms unaccounted for, PTSD is now known to be a disorder that haunts millions of people on a daily basis. Treatments are improving as researchers learn more and ways to put “fight-or-flight” back in its proper context become available.
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