The Long Term Effects of Fear - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

American troops come home from the war in Iraq, many with shrapnel wounds and lost limbs. But in many ways a more significant injury is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”). The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a National Center for PTSD, which says on its website:

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults like rape. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person's daily life.

PTSD is marked by clear biological changes as well as psychological symptoms. PTSD is complicated by the fact that it frequently occurs in conjunction with related disorders such as depression, substance abuse, problems of memory and cognition, and other problems of physical and mental health. The disorder is also associated with impairment of the person's ability to function in social or family life, including occupational instability, marital problems and divorces, family discord, and difficulties in parenting.

PTSD is not only a problem for veterans, however. Although there are unique cultural- and gender-based aspects of the disorder, it occurs in men and women, adults and children, Western and non-Western cultural groups, and all socioeconomic strata. A national study of American civilians conducted in 1995 estimated that the lifetime prevalence of PTSD was 5% in men and 10% in women.

Most people who are exposed to a traumatic, stressful event experience some of the symptoms of PTSD in the days and weeks following exposure. Available data suggest that about 8% of men and 20% of women go on to develop PTSD, and roughly 30% of these individuals develop a chronic form that persists throughout their lifetimes.

What causes PTSD? Here is what the Department says:

The most frequently experienced traumas were:

  • Witnessing someone being badly injured or killed
  • Being involved in a fire, flood, or natural disaster
  • Being involved in a life-threatening accident
  • Combat exposure

The traumatic events most often associated with PTSD in men were rape, combat exposure, childhood neglect, and childhood physical abuse. For women, the most common events were rape, sexual molestation, physical attack, being threatened with a weapon, and childhood physical abuse.

So, it seems that such life threatening incidents can give rise to a symptom that may have serious lifetime effects. Yet there is no further analysis to try to determine more deeply the root cause of this condition. Sometimes, it is hard to see the forest for the trees.

It is clear to me that fear is the basic source of PTSD. That’s it, fear. A “life-threatening event” is inherently one that would give rise to an acute fear for one’s life. Fear is the common thread in all of the situations that lead to PTSD. Fear can have debilitating physiological and even physical effects lasting a lifetime.

We tend to worry about the veterans, but what about the civilians of war torn countries that see neighbors and friends blown up each day and fear desperately for their lives? Do wars create populations destined to have a measure of dysfunction simply because of the fear they are exposed to? The answer is yes. If we understand this, we can finally appreciate the devastating effects of humans pitting themselves against one another, which itself is based on the fear of other humans.

Fear in all its forms and progeny takes people away from the love and peace that are their natural state. A terrifying fear is actually no different than an otherwise relatively benign fear of something like spiders or close spaces. Fear is totally irrational, but can be chronic and addictive, as demonstrated by PTSD.

If we can understand what fear does and how powerful it really is, we can abolish fear. We have to understand fear first, though. Then, we can learn how to relieve the effects of fear. Just as it is completely obvious that fear causes PTSD, it is also absolutely clear that letting go of fear – forgiveness – leads to peace. I believe our world will be learning this soon.