Not Walking Away: Understanding and Treating Civilian PTSD

From the earliest days of battle, generals recognized that the horror and carnage witnessed could break people and leave them in shock. Scholarly work even hypothesizes that many of the famous scenes in The Iliad are a discussion of what war does to people–Achilles going “berserk,” could very well be one of the earliest terms used to discuss PTSD. In WWI we had “shell-shock,” both the most colorful and the most cruelly dismissive moniker. It seems to imply, almost, that you were weak if you allowed yourself to be shocked by the violence. Through the years, we’ve had many names for it, but Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, has always been associated with war. But are those its only victims?

In recent years, we’ve come to understand that PTSD is a serious psychological condition, and a reaction to terrifying circumstances. Soldiers have begun getting the help they deserve, instead of being scorned for it. What hasn’t fully penetrated the public consciousness yet is that PTSD is not just an outcome of the horrors of war. It’s something that can be experienced by anyone. Our failure to recognize it has left it too often undiagnosed, and even ignored by the people suffering from it. Understanding civilian PTSD can help sufferers recognize that they have a serious mental condition, and one for which they can and should get help.

Understanding the Roots of PTSD

There’s a reason PTSD is most commonly linked with the military. It is caused by something traumatic happening outside the normal range of human experience, most often, though not exclusively, associated with the horrible proximity of death. Soldiers in war, by the very nature of their job, have repetitive experience with this.

They aren’t the only ones who do, however. PTSD can be triggered by a number of causes, including:

  • Accidents: Car, plane, train, accidents or otherwise, where you nearly die, or are surrounded and confronted by the death of others. This can also be caused just by witnessing the aftermath.
  • Rape and Assault: A terrible experience when your body is being abused and you are faced with a total lack of control.
  • Natural Disaster: Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, fire.
  • Civilian Gunfire: Mass shootings, drive-bys, random acts of violence.

What happens in these situations is that, on a neurochemical level, your brain triggers the “fight-or-flight” response associated with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal region. This is usually a good instinct, but in extreme times, the chemistry can get disordered, and not fully settle down. This can cause long-standing psychological issues, as the brain relives the experience, if not in memory and dreams, then in its awareness, sensitivity, and reaction to stimuli. Long after the fight-or-flight response should have resolved, you are still operating at this heightened level.

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The Dangers of “Walking Away” from Civilian PTSD

In all of the above scenarios, the people who survive are almost invariably told that they are lucky to “walk away.” And on some level that is of course true. They didn’t die. They leave the attack or the accident or the tornado. It’s inspiring.

But walking away can be dangerous. Survivors are told that they are the lucky ones, and that they can move on. This mentality, of being “lucky,” can be psychologically harming for someone suffering from PTSD, whether it happens right away or has a delayed onset. The brain’s chemicals have gone haywire, but you’re told that you are lucky. This leads people to believe that there’s just something wrong with them when they can’t get over it, and not that there is actually something chemically and psychologically disordered.

Seeking treatment is often the only way to get past this trauma. We’re just beginning to recognize the role of PTSD in violent communities, and from there, we can recognize that it can afflict anyone. It is the circumstance, not the person. If you have had a traumatic experience, it is dangerous to feel that just because you weren’t in a war, or because you survived, your experience and trauma is somehow lessened, or something you should just get over.

PTSD can cause a cascading series of concurrent disorders where people fall into depression and try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Finding a compassionate and professional residential treatment centerwhere they understand the dangers and pain associated with civilian PTSD can be crucial to your well-being. Don’t just walk away from an accident–walk toward recovery.

At Bridges to Recovery, we treat PTSD–from whatever cause. Here, our clients receive compassionate and expert care at one of our two comforting and welcoming residential facilities. The road to recovery starts here–contact us today to take that first step.