How to Write PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was first discovered during WWI. Back then, it was called ‘shell shock’, ‘war neurosis’ or ‘combat stress’.
It primarily affected officers, who were forced to suppress their emotions to set a good example for their men.
(If you want to read more about the story behind this, the BBC has a great piece on shell shock and how it was treated.)
We still tend to associate PTSD with soldiers and veterans, but it spans much wider than that.
It can also be triggered by other events which may seem innocuous to the outside world.
Much like any other mental health condition, PTSD doesn’t discriminate. It can get you any time, any where.
Most often PTSD is triggered by a single event, but it can also be triggered by a series of events, such as long-term abuse.
Symptoms of PTSD
Someone with PTSD may have some of these symptoms, or they may have all of them.
Flashbacks are the most common and well-known symptom of PTSD.
It’s not about just thinking about being back there; sufferers actually feel as though they’re reliving the event(s) that caused their PTSD to begin with.
They may also have nightmares replaying the events.
Loss of sleep
Haunted by the memories of what happened to them, sufferers often struggle to sleep. When they do sleep, they may be plagued by flashbacks.
When you have PTSD, you never know what’s going to set you off.
Something as simple as a car backfiring could trigger a flashback of a gunshot.
This creates a sense of fear in the person with PTSD because they never know what could trigger them.
So they withdraw to wherever they feel safest.
Anxiety has a whole list of symptoms of its own, but it’s a huge part of PTSD.
Just about anything can cause a PTSD sufferer to feel anxious.
Loud noises can make PTSD sufferers particularly jumpy.
So can catching them by surprise.
They may then retreat into themselves after being made so jumpy.
Lack of appetite
Loss of appetite is just one of the physical manifestations of stress. Some people may also eat more to deal with stress.
Controlling eating habits could be seen as a way of clawing back control. Food may also make a person feel ill if they witnessed something particularly horrific/gory.
Blindness, deafness, or muteness
In severe cases, the person may go temporarily blind, deaf, or mute.
This is another extreme symptom that many World War I soldiers faced. It shows how significant the link is between mental and physical health.
Treatments for PTSD
PTSD is treatable, but it must be managed in the right way.
Medication may be prescribed to help with depression, anxiety, or sleeping problems. However, if the person is at risk of suicide, this will have to be heavily monitored.
Talking therapies are often recommended too, as they can help the person struggling to face their experience in a safe environment.
In one of her studies, Amy Cuddy looked into PTSD and the affects on body language with sufferers. It turned out that encouraging them to do yoga, breathing exercises, and practice power poses was more effective than talking therapy alone.
That’s not to say talking therapy isn’t useful, because it is. However, PTSD sufferers need to know that they haven’t lost all of their power. One of the ways they can regain that is by monitoring their body language.
Another way for sufferers to regain control is by doing something productive.
During World War I, one hospital got soldiers to do labour on the land. This—along with talking therapies and writing about their experiences—helped the hospital to achieve a 90% recovery rate, even among some of the worst sufferers.
Examples of PTSD in popular culture
This isn’t an exhaustive list, nor am I commenting on whether these representations are good or bad. I’ve listened them here so that you can watch/read for yourself and form your own judgement.
There may be minor spoilers ahead. I’ve only included the show’s name in the subtitle so that if you want to gloss over a particular example to avoid spoilers, you can.
Stranger Things 2
In season two of the hit Netflix show, Will Byers experiences flashbacks about his time in the Upside Down.
Turns out there’s something more at play here, but his symptoms (and the way his family reacts) are still common for PTSD sufferers.
After returning safely from a kidnapping, Olivia suffers from flashbacks of what happened to her.
Simple things like washing her hands in a bathroom sink or looking at her sofa cause her to feel like she’s back in the hands of her captors. This then causes her to act erratically to those around her, even running out on a date.
Lewis Walcott was a soldier in Afghanistan. He struggles to adjust to life outside of the army and feels that without it, his life is meaningless.
He’s incredibly jumpy, paranoid, and even resorts to digging a trench in his back garden because he feels safer in there than in the house.
Magnolia Steele – Denise Grover Swank
Ten years earlier, Magnolia witnessed something terrible. It’s so terrible that she runs away for ten years. When she returns to her hometown, pieces begin to return to her. Because nobody believed anything bad had happened to her that night—and thought she’d done something bad instead—she’s very untrusting. She doesn’t like people getting close to her or finding out her secrets. Over the course of the series she learns to open up, but sometimes her paranoia is justified…
Return to New York – Kristina Adams
After losing her mum and sister in a car accident, divorcing her lazy husband, being stalked, and having someone almost kill her, is it any wonder Fayth Campbell is a nervous wreck?
She won’t admit it, though.
And sooner or later, it’s going to catch up with her…
Over to You
What do you think the best examples of characters with PTSD are?
Like this post? You may also want to check out the rest of the how to write about mental health series: