Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - Shell Shock

Sebastian Junger, author of TRIBE, on Homecoming and Belonging, wrote Combat veterans who come home to find themselves missing the incredibly intimate bonds of platoon life. The loss of closeness that comes at the end of deployment may explain the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. I am not sure I agree. It is easier to believe some veterans return with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to the tragic things they see and go through while being deployed, causing them to return home damaged.

An important aspect of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is Shell Shock.

What exactly is shell shock? Is it the same as PTSD? Yes and no. The origins of the term Shell shock are unclear, but there are two different theories. One is, it was a term created in 1915 by Charles Myers to describe soldiers who were suffering from involuntary shivering, crying, fearfulness, and constant troubles with memory. The other theory is that the soldiers themselves fighting during World War I came up with the term and when Doctor Myers was appointed to oversee the growing problem, he took on the term.

As it stands, the term is no longer used by psychiatrists today but is still used by the general public. It’s like the old saying that “all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon.” Shell shock is PTSD, but PTSD is not shell shock. Shell shock was the term we used to describe the known symptoms of what is now known as PTSD, but it only applied to war veterans whereas PTSD, by definition, includes more than just war veterans.

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The reason shell shock was chosen as a name for the symptoms was because very little was known at the time about why these symptoms were occurring, but it was believed that it could have possibly been caused by gun fire. The soldiers were literally shell shocked. According to PBS the term “Soldier’s Heart” comes from “the post-Civil War era when people were looking at these veterans returning from Civil War combat and trying to understand why they had been changed, because there was general recognition that they had been changed, and that many of those changes were not for the good.( And back then) there were two different models trying to explain this. One was a psychological model, and the other was a physiological model. Soldier’s Heart comes from the physiological model, the observations that people’s cardiovascular system in terms of their heart dynamics, their blood pressure, a pulse rate, seemed to be altered. We can now incorporate that under the PTSD concept, but starting with Soldier’s Heart, Irritable Heart … it was (Jacob Mendez) Da Costa, a 19th-century cardiologist, made these observations.”

Either way there was a growing problem within the ranks during WWI and “shell shock” or “soldier’s heart,” as it was also known shortly after the Civil war, had become a very serious medical and military problem that the military wanted answers to. Not only did it affect increasing numbers of frontline troops serving in World War I, but British Army doctors were also struggling to understand and treat the disorder. The British military called in Doctor Charles S. Myers, a medically trained psychologist, as a consulting psychologist to the British Expeditionary Force. It would be the job of Capt. Charles Myers of the Royal Army Medical Corps to gather data for a policy to address the increasing issue of psychiatric battle casualties. Myers would later be called into question due to the overwhelming opinion that these soldiers were suffering from nothing more than cowardice.

What is PTSD? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD) can occur “from a variety of traumatic incidents, such as mugging, rape, torture, being kidnapped or held captive, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes.” When something goes drastically wrong, such as a car accident, a person usually feels fear and “this fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to prepare to defend against the danger or to avoid it.” This is the time when you have milliseconds to decide if you are going to face whatever is coming at you or run away and it is a completely healthy response to the outside stimuli that is causing this reaction. But in people suffering from PTSD, this reaction has been changed or even damaged in some cases. Because of this change or damage in the brain, people who are suffering from PTSD “may feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger.” Like when a car would backfire and for seemingly no reason at all someone would dive onto the ground covering their head in fear. The more likely scenario nowadays is when a car swerves for no reason trying to avoid a plastic bag on the side of the road because the driver is fearful that the bag may contain an IED. They get stuck in a state of constant fear that they cannot get out of.

What can we do for soldiers returning from war with PTSD? We can provide proper funding to hospitals so that veterans don’t need to wait for the care they need. The suicide rates in veterans is astounding. One veteran every sixty minutes commits suicide, about twenty-two every day. Which is way too high. Also, as compiled by the SF Gate, the Marine Corp and the Army saw nearly four times the amount of PTSD diagnoses than in the Navy or Air Force because they’re more likely to be exposed to combat situations. While enlisted men, are twice as likely as officers to report PTSD. Regarding women in the military, between 8 percent and 10 percent of active-duty women and retired military women who served in Iraq suffered or suffer from PTSD. Studies also showed that women serving in Iraq suffered from more pronounced and debilitating forms of PTSD than their male counterparts. A Defense Department study found that 1 in 6 soldiers and Marines troops returning from Iraq acknowledged symptoms of severe depression and PTSD, and 6 in 10 of these same veterans did not seek help for fear they might damage their careers or would be treated differently by commanders and fellow troops. Something must be done and fast or more and more veterans will continue to commit suicide every day. It’s sad that currently we continue to lack funding for medical programs for veterans and even shut down mental hospitals.

Works Cited

  • Epstein, Jack, and Johnny Miller. “U.S. Wars and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.” SFGate. San Francisco Gate, 22 June 2005. Web. 08 May 2014.
  • Friedman, Matthew, Dr. “Frontline “Soldier’s Heart” and “Shell Shock:” Past Names for PTSD.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 08 May 2014.
  • Jones, Edgar, Dr. “Shell Shocked.” American Psychological Association, June 2012. Web. 07 May 2014.
  • Joseph, Stephen, Ph. D. “Is Shell Shock the Same as PTSD?” Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness + Find a Therapist. What Doesn’t Kill Us, 20 Nov. 2011. Web. 04 May 2014.
  • “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” NIMH RSS. National Institute of Mental Health, n.d. Web. 08 May 2014.

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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - Shell Shock. (2019, Dec 17). Retrieved from

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