Eric Maisel proposed a few years ago that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) isn’t actually a disorder nor should it be labeled as such. It should just be termed post-traumatic stress response or something similar. Others are starting to agree with him.
Well, if we step back for a moment and take a look at why PTSD develops in people in the first place, then you might see that Maisel et al make an excellent point. Let’s use the example of a war veteran.
After experiencing the inexplicable and nightmarish realities of war and its inherent violence and atrocities, how does one imagine a healthy individual to respond afterwards? One could anticipate flashbacks, avoidance, isolation, nightmares, and hyperarousal reactions including anger outbursts, tension and hypervigilance. One would expect somatic symptoms as well like migraines, tension headaches, and other physical symptoms. This isn’t unusual. In fact, it was asserted that a healthy person would return from war with some kind of post-traumatic response in place, and this very response reflects their prior mental health.
What does that mean? Everyone has a different level of tolerance for trauma. What one person can tolerate may vary wildly from what another person can tolerate. Someone may be able to return from war and integrate into society and family life with greater ease than another person, and this is almost certainly to do with the resiliency factor. Everyone has their own resiliency spectrum. For those with a lower tolerance for trauma then, it is completely normal and to be expected even that they would return from a war setting experiencing a post-traumatic response.
Labeling a completely normal human response to trauma a “disorder” stigmatizes trauma survivors. Anyone who has been through trauma and admitted it to the wrong person knows all about this. It also keeps people away from the very environments that would allow for healing. Many trauma survivors already struggle with that uniquely depersonalized feeling that causes them to feel like they are on the outside of their lives looking in. Adding stigma to the emotional experience amplifies that ontological isolation–the Outsider Experience–and perpetuates the anxiety that a good future is for other people.
PTSD is a brain-based experience. Studies have shown that the size of the hippocampus is a factor in the development of PTSD. This is why two people can go through the same trauma while only one develops PTSD. Those with a smaller hippocampus may be genetically vulnerable to the development of PTSD after trauma. The emotional experience of PTSD is an expression of an experience originating in the brain, and your brain believes that it is doing its job. Even the post-traumatic response lies on a spectrum. Some people experience it acutely while others endure a chronic experience.
Much of what has been labeled as “disorder”, in my opinion, isn’t that disordered at all. It’s an expected response. In fact, it’s the brain adapting to fit an extreme environment–even if that extreme environment is very short-lived. The problem that exists is retraining the brain. Telling the brain to stand down. Adapt again. The environment has changed yet again. I think, hence, that PTSD is an adaptation, not a disorder.
The good news is that there is help for that. We adapted to a situation in order to survive it. We can adapt again in our lives in order to do more than survive. In order to really live and regain a sense of control. Discover our options. Create happiness.
EMDR and doing therapeutic work with a qualified therapist will get you there, but, in case you can’t pursue that yet, this book will get you started: