Few would disagree with me when I tell you that life can be hard sometimes. It is often filled with trauma, disappointment, and just bad luck. In the last few months, I have felt what I consider to be more than my share of stress due to various events largely beyond my control. I know, I know, life is not fair. But realizing that does little to relieve the pressure.
I don’t want to sound like a complainer. Even in the worst of times, my life is so much easier than most people’s. And I am grateful for that. And my minor complaints have helped me develop empathy for those much worse off than me.
But stress is on my mind. One reason for that is June is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) Awareness Month, an illness that seems to plague more and more of us as we learn more and more about it. At least eight percent of the population will experience PTSD at some point. Like other illnesses, it can affect anyone—male, female, rich, poor, famous, or unknown. For example, I recently read an article about Jimmy Stewart, who, of course, was a well-known actor starring in movies such as Shenandoah, Rear Window, and It’s a Wonderful Life (to name my three favorites). Stewart served as a fighter pilot during World War II. And the war was not kind to him. Stewart suffered from the guilt of bombing civilians over France and Germany, and once, he even bombed the wrong city by mistake. Perhaps even worse, in one particular battle, Stewart’s unit lost 13 planes and more than 130 fellow soldiers he knew well. In short, Stewart returned from World War II with a severe case of PTSD. But he never talked about it. Instead, he used his roles as an actor, especially as George Bailey in It’s Wonderful Life, to help relieve his mental stress.
We sometimes think of PTSD as a modern phenomenon, but it has been around as long as trauma has plagued humankind. During World War I, we called it “shell shock.” During World War II, we knew it as “battle fatigue.” But whatever we call it, the symptoms are the same:
- Overwhelming guilt and shame
- Anxiety, depression, and feelings of uselessness
- Suicidal thoughts and attempts
- Mood swings, difficulty sleeping and concentrating
- Flashbacks, nightmares, and unwanted memories of the trauma
- Withdrawal from family, friends, and activities once enjoyed.
We often associate PTSD with war, and rightfully so. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have an eleven to twenty percent chance of experiencing PTSD. That means between 209,000 and 380,000 veterans of those wars have or will develop PTSD. The Vietnam War was even worse, as studies have shown that 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans developed PTSD, or 810,000 of the 2.7 million who served there. And women soldiers are more likely to develop PTSD than their male counterparts. But regardless of gender, experiences in war often lead to PTSD.
The Oscar-winning movie, The Hurt Locker,[i] illustrates what it was like to be an explosives expert in Iraq:
I don’t know how anyone gets over experiences like that. The recent movie, Cherry,[ii] is another example of what war can do to a soldier’s psyche. To avoid too many spoilers, I am only posting the official trailer here:
Cherry falls in love with his college classmate, Emily, but Emily decides to end the relationship to study in Montreal. In reaction to the break-up, Cherry joins the Army as a medic. Cherry serves two years and returns from war suffering from PTSD. As the trailer hints, PTSD leads to drug addiction, which, in this case, leads to a life of crime. It is a hard movie to watch, but not atypical of the experiences of returning veterans. One study found that 74 percent of veterans who have PTSD also developed alcoholism and drug addiction issues.
But you don’t have to be a veteran to experience PTSD. In this scene from Mystic River,[iii] three childhood friends carve their names in the wet cement of the sidewalk in their neighborhood, which leads to one of them being kidnapped and abused by a Catholic priest. And that traumatic experience leads to PTSD, which leads to murder:
In the film Reign Over Me,[iv] Alan Johnson (played by Don Cheadle) tries to help his friend Charlie Fineman (played by Adam Sandler) as Charlie battles PTSD over his wife’s and kids’ deaths during 9/11. But Fineman refuses to confront his demons by talking about them—typically one of the first steps to recovery—until this scene:
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it increased challenges related to PTSD. A recent study of 1773 healthcare workers and public service providers in Norway found that 28.9 percent of them had symptoms of PTSD. Those working directly with COVID-19 patients had significantly higher PTSD symptoms than those working indirectly with those patients. A Canadian study found that 40 percent of nurses working with COVID-19 patients had symptoms of PTSD. A worldwide survey of healthcare workers found that almost 22 percent had PTSD. Experts tell us, to help our healthcare workers, we need to provide them more social support. But such support is hard to come by with a pandemic requiring us to be isolated. So, if you know a healthcare worker, give them an elbow bump or, in some other way, let them know how much you appreciate them.
Therapy combined with antidepressants is the most common treatment for PTSD, as rarely can a person living with PTSD recover independently. Like Charlie Fineman in Reign Over Me, most people who have PTSD do not want to appear weak by acknowledging it. But that is usually the first step down the road to recovery. If you know someone who has PTSD, let them know that it takes a strong person to admit they need help and encourage them to get the help they need.
Fortunately, most people who experience trauma do not develop PTSD. And trauma can sometimes be positive, resulting in personal growth, or as psychologists call it, “post-traumatic growth.” Please don’t get me wrong; I do not wish trauma on anyone, but sometimes, as researchers have found, “great good can come from great suffering.”
In their book, The Power of Moments,[v] authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath, relying on the pioneering work of researchers Tedeschi and Calhoun, suggest five areas where good can come from suffering:
- Look for small peaks: through trauma, some people have reported a greater capacity to enjoy the small things in life that they might have previously ignored.
- Celebrate and honor relationships: The death of a loved one might bring out new appreciation for friends and other loved ones.
- Acknowledge your strength: trauma will test our abilities to stretch and endure hardship. But we learn that we can do hard things.
- Identify new possibilities: through trauma, we often find new paths and new passions.
- Look for spiritual insight: trauma survivors often find comfort in spiritual practices and rituals, finding that a higher power helped them through the trauma.
If you know someone who is suffering from PTSD, encourage them to seek the help they need. All of us go through stressful times now and again. When you do (although I don’t wish trauma on anyone), try to look for those opportunities where great good can come from gr
[i] The Hurt Locker:
- Production Companies: Voltage Pictures, Grosvenor Park, and Film Capital Europe Funds
- Director: Kathryn Bigelow
- Screenwriter: Mark Boal
- Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty
- Release date: July 31, 2009
- Production Companies: The Hideaway Entertainment, AGBO, and Kasbah Films
- Directors: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
- Screenwriters: Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg (based on the novel by Nico Walker)
- Starring: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, and Jack Reynor
- Release date: March 12, 2021
[iii] Mystic River:
- Production Companies: Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures, and NPV Entertainment
- Director: Clint Eastwood
- Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland (based on the novel by Dennis Lehane)
- Starring: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon
- Release date: October 15, 2003
[iv] Reign Over Me:
- Production Companies: Relativity Media, Madison 23, and Sunlight Productions
- Director: Mike Binder
- Screenwriter: Mike Binder
- Starring: Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, and Jada Pinkett Smith
- Release date: March 23, 2007
[v] The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, published by Simon & Schuster, copyright 2017.