A recurring challenge in assessing and treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is the inherently complex, ill-defined, and sometimes downright puzzling nature of its symptoms.
The condition has had many names over the years. Among them: shell shock, combat exhaustion, irritable heart, and even nostalgia. The affliction, now widely know as post-traumatic stress disorder, was so conceptually vague for so long that many in the medical community still regarded it skeptically after the American Psychiatric Association formally recognized PTSD in 1980.
A lot has changed since then. U.S. troops have been fighting wars continuously for almost 17 years, and the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that between 11% to 20% of the men and women engaged in these conflicts suffer from PTSD. More than 3 million cases—military and civilian—are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. It’s estimated that one in 11 Americans will experience the condition at some time in their lives.
PTSD’s invisible wounds can dramatically affect mental health and diminish patients’ quality of life. The Sidran Institute, a nonprofit organization serving people who have experienced or witnessed traumatic events, says PTSD patients make extremely high use of medical and mental health services, incurring the perhaps the highest per-capita costs among all psychological conditions.
PTSD through the years
As early as the 1600s, exposure to trauma was recognized as having potentially severe psychological effects on survivors. Swiss military physicians used the term “nostalgia” to define a condition marked by disturbed sleep, heart palpitations, and anxiety. Names like “irritable heart” and “shell shock” were later applied. During World War II, the U.S. Army distilled the condition into an official slogan: “Every man has his breaking point.”