The History of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder



Symptomology of PTSD is found in ancient literary and philosophical works. One example is in the Epic of Gilgamesh where Gilgamesh struggles with loss. 

‘I wept for him seven days and nights till the worm fastened on him. Because of my brother I am afraid of death, because of my brother I stray through the wilderness. His fate lies heavy upon me. How can I be silent, how can I rest? He is dust and I too shall die and be laid in the earth for ever. I am afraid of death... ’ (Epic of Gilgamesh, Part 6).

 Another example is in Homer’s epic The Iliad through Achilles’ regret of the death of his friend Patroclus. Achilles' wish for Hector to have killed him instead showcases another form of "survivors guilt." 

"Then said Achilles in his great grief, “I would die here and now, in that I could not save my comrade. He has fallen far from home, and in his hour of need my hand was not there to help him. What is there for me? Return to my own land I shall not, and I have brought no saving neither to Patroclus nor to my other comrades of whom so many have been slain by mighty Hector." (The Iliad, Book XVIII)


Growing Awareness in the Nineteenth Century

During the Napoleonic Wars, it was documented that soldiers would drop down to the ground as if they were hit, but they were untouched by the bullet. They called this "la vent du boulet" or "wind of the cannonball." Notions of PTSD were also seen during the American Civil War and were called “irritable heart” or “soldier's heart” by medics.

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Corporal Calvin Bates lost his feet due to rough conditions in the Andersonville Prison during the American Civil War.  Amputations often lead to symptoms of PTSD or "soldiers heart."


Shell Shock

The name “shell shock” originated during World War I, by Charles S. Myers. He and other psychologists conducted numerous studies about PTSD in soldiers. Researchers continued to explore PTSD in England and Germany during WWII. The difference between shell shock and PTSD lies in the physical symptom that has come with shell shock. Physical symptoms include ticks such as nose wiping, walking abnormally, facial twitches, or "railroad spine."


Battle Fatigue

Soldiers during World War II suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but admitting to it was stigma left these instances, unreported. Although military doctors knew it as "battle fatigue" the soldiers continued to called it "shell shock." To highlight the stigma, John Huston directed a documentary about PTSD. The War Department banned the film because it showed the grim reality of what soldiers go through in war.





The biggest reference of the existence of PTSD during WWII is General Patton's "Slap heard 'round the world." There are different perspectives about the circumstances of General Patton's actions. Read the section below for more information about this incident.





During the Vietnam War, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD became a diagnosable disorder. Although medically recognized, a social stigma remained attached to PTSD.  However, this is when PTSD finally was getting the recognition that it deserved. In 1983, the Veterans Association conducted their first study of PTSD symptoms in Vietnam Veterans, they called this study the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study or NVVLS. The NVVLS showed that although veterans who served in Vietnam were physically and mentally healthy, but a large portion still had symptoms related to PTSD.



This is an interview of a Vietnam Veteran, Tucker Smallwood, who returned from the war did not know he had PTSD until the anniversary of the day he almost died. He called this "anniversary syndrome."


PTSD Today

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder today holds less of a stigma than previous wars. Many veterans and service members, however, still feel that they are alone in this endless war within themselves. There are different ways that PTSD is being treated because of research. Modern therapies for PTSD include Virtual Reality therapy, group therapy, and art therapy. 
One of the more visible therapies is service dogs that are specifically trained to their soldier. These foundations train their dogs to react to PTSD triggers in their owners, such as disrupted sleep, a shaking leg and other indicators such as nail biting. Many veterans call their dog their battle buddy. This means that the dog does not judge them for what they’re going through, and they have your back no matter what.
Many veterans agree that speaking with other soldiers about PTSD helps them heal more because they are speaking with someone who understands what they have gone through.


Other Therapies



Electric Shock Therapy

Electric Shock Therapy was used during WWI primarily in England and Germany.

Group Therapy

During Vietnam, psychiatrists discovered that group therapy may be helpful to soldiers who are struggling with PTSD. This is confirmed by veterans that were interviewed.

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During the war, keeping journals and diaries were recommended especially for higher command and medics. This way they would have a record of the symptoms that the different soldiers were experiencing.


Veterans have began making art to express what they are going through with PTSD. Click on the link to look at the work of Eric Sanders, a veteran and student at Georgia Southern University.

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