I regularly receive letters and emails asking me about post-traumatic stress disorder; predominately an issue for military personnel returning from active duty. While everybody agrees that some people certainly do suffer from PTSD, I’m often asked if others might be using the label unfairly to get additional benefits, to bully their households or maybe not take responsibility for their actions.
PTSD is generally defined as a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in psychological trauma. Psychological trauma is most certainly a subjective term. People can feel traumatized after a war. But they can also feel traumatized after a horrible childhood, or after not getting a desired job, or even after sitting in traffic jams.
Trauma is a relative term, and psychiatrists have no interest in making it anything other than a relative concept. I’m not saying it can’t be done, and I’m not suggesting that trauma is not real to those experiencing it. But it’s important to understand we have no specific criteria to define it.
PTSD gets the ‘disease’ status of cancer, heart disease or pneumonia, in spite of the fact that there are no concrete ways to prove that one is undergoing trauma, other than through value judgments. There is no blood test or X-ray to isolate PTSD. One man’s trauma might be another’s everyday life, yet according to psychiatry as we know it, it’s all trauma.
In American society today, pretty much everything is trauma. Our government and educated intellectuals (psychiatrists included) have frankly turned many of us into a bunch of babies.
These ‘experts,’ in many cases, appeal to the worst and the weakest within us. They’ve trivialized the concept of trauma by turning everything into a disaster, a catastrophe or a disease.
Cancer and ALS and heart failure are disasters and catastrophes. But according to the faux wisdom of our times, ‘road rage,’ short attention spans and anger over not making as much money as your neighbor are now also diseases. And it’s making us a society of depressed and demoralized people.
In plain English, trauma is a continuing reaction to a painful or upsetting experience which the mind, and/or the body are not handling well. But it’s not considered polite to put it that way, though it’s not necessarily a value judgment about the victim. It’s just a statement of fact.
The notion of trauma should never have been medicalized to begin with. It’s not a physical disease caused by biological factors. It’s a state of mind; a way of reacting to particular events. This is the broader problem with psychiatry as we know it. The field adopted the medical model initially as a metaphor for disease. Now people treat emotional states as equivalent to diseases.
Of course, emotional problems sometimes do manifest as physical symptoms. For example, people with PTSD can experience problems with sleeping or breathing. But we’re never certain that this is due to the trauma. There are anxious and emotional people, and there are less anxious and less emotional people. You can place a highly anxious person and a calmer person in the same traumatic event, and they’ll each come out of the experience differently.
Originally, PTSD applied only to extreme situations, such as war or horrible events like fire or disaster. Given the subjectivity of the label, it was only a matter of time before psychotherapists and psychiatrists began to apply it to just about anything that somebody found uncomfortable, none the least of which ‘non-combat PTSD’ and PTSD following an abusive childhood.
While it’s unhealthy to ignore or minimize the effect of genuine trauma, it’s equally unhealthy to make the experience of trauma a person’s defining characteristic. It saddens me to think of people approaching a psychiatrist or therapist for help, saying, ‘I want to move past the trauma,’ and being told, in effect, ‘The trauma is who you are.’
Mental health professionals and physicians who do this risk elevating the tragic to the most important aspects of life. They would never try to motivate themselves this way, so they shouldn’t impose this destructive self-labeling on the already beleaguered client they claim to treat. Health professionals might not be doing this consciously, but it is, in effect, what they are doing. And nobody benefits.
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