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Studies indicate that more than 200 million people in America have experienced a traumatic event at some point. These experiences come in different forms, and they affect people in different ways. Their effects are certainly more severe and visible in some people than in others. While trauma impacts everyone’s lives, it can have profound lasting effects.
Shell shock and post-traumatic stress disorder are both terms used to describe the effects of traumatic events. Though these conditions are similar, they’re not quite the same. If someone exhibits noticeable reactions to past trauma, are they suffering from shell shock or PTSD? What are the differences between the two? Read on to learn more about both conditions.
Explaining Shell Shock
Shell shock became a recognized condition during World War I. This term was used to describe symptoms observed in soldiers who experienced trauma in combat. Shell shock referred to the effects of being exposed to the sounds of artillery shells, explosions, and other loud noises associated with war. Those sounds were believed to cause soldiers to have physical reactions that persisted even after they were taken out of combat situations.
Soldiers who were diagnosed with shell shock displayed a range of symptoms. Those included anxiety, irritability, nightmares, fatigue, and confusion. Some exhibited physical symptoms like tremors or paralysis as well. It’s believed that at least 250,000 soldiers suffered from shell shock because of World War I.
Delving into PTSD
In the beginning, people’s understanding of the effects of shell shock and their true causes were highly limited. In fact, some experts of the time believed the condition was caused by damage to the nervous system more so than psychological factors. The term was only used to describe trauma that stemmed from combat as well. Over time, medical and psychological knowledge evolved. That gave rise to the condition we know today as post-traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD is a mental health disorder that can develop after a person is exposed to a traumatic event. It covers a broader range of experiences than shell shock did. Instead of applying only to combat, PTSD can be caused by accidents, natural disasters, assaults, and many more types of trauma. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a widely used manual for diagnosing mental health issues, lays out certain criteria for diagnosing PTSD. To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must have experienced a traumatic event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation.
Symptoms of PTSD can be categorized into four main clusters. Those include intrusive thoughts and memories like flashbacks, nightmares, and severe emotional distress that’s triggered by reminders of the actual traumatic event a person experienced. Another category of symptoms is avoidance and numbing. That describes the avoidance of potential reminders of a traumatic event or experiencing emotional numbness. It may also include having difficulties recalling details of the trauma in question.
From there, there are negative changes in mood and thought patterns. That entails negative self-views and misplaced blame. It can also include reduced interest in activities, detachment from other people, or an inability to experience positive emotions. Finally, you have the category of arousal and reactivity. Symptoms in this group include irritability, angry outbursts, or extreme reactions to stressors. It also extends to reckless or self-destructive behaviors, constantly looking for potential threats, and difficulty concentrating.
Understanding the Differences Between Shell Shock and PTSD
While shell shock and PTSD are similar, they’re not quite the same. Shell shock was originally considered a physical ailment resulting from combat whereas PTSD is understood to be a psychological and emotional response to trauma. The term shell shock has been weeded out at present and replaced with PTSD, which encompasses a more comprehensive understanding of the effects of trauma and the symptoms they cause. It also includes more traumatic experiences than combat alone.