PTSD: A New Phenomenon?

Mindhacks.com recently had a post on post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, titling the post “A very modern trauma”. I was intrigued by the headline because I also believe that PTSD is likely to have increased in prevalence recently. They review some research that looked back at PTSD rates in past wars, even going back centuries. (Disclaimer: It is, of course, very difficult to reconstruct the psychological condition of people who are long gone.) Yet some researchers agree with me and think PTSD, at its current levels of prevalence, is unlikely to be a “universal timeless disorder.”

My perspective, using the Pack Leader Psychology paradigm, is two-layered.

First, as a psychologist, I am convinced that most people who are diagnosed with PTSD came into the trauma with already-high levels of anxiety/fear. (Would be a fascinating research project.)

A commenter (JenJen) on the Mindhack blog wrot that she was diagnosed with PTSD after her mother committed suicide. But she noted that this trauma followed a lifetime of being raised by her mother, a “paranoid schizophrenic.” Her father also committed suicide. These facts make me conclude that she was raised by very anxious, fearful people with low self-worth. She did not have balanced, secure parents providing an emotionally safe environment. In short, she did not have a stable pack and strong pack leaders providing her the security she needed to feel safe.

A child raised by such fearful, self-absorbed, non-pack-leader parents will, quite naturally, learn to react to the world with fear. It’s as if she was “thrown to the wolves” at an early age, forced to fend for herself emotionally, and so failed to learn resilient emotional behaviors.

Then when a trauma hits this type of person, they don’t have the skills or resources or self-worth to respond appropriately. Their only response is: fear, resulting in fight, flight or avoidance.

I explain how a balanced person with strong self-worth is more resilient in my new book “Pack Leader Psychology.”

To me, Pack Leader Psychology explains one of the conundrums of PTSD.  How else do you explain how two people can experience the same situation (hurricane, war, crime) and one shows no long-term symptoms of stress and the other is fearful and anxious for months or years?  If PTSD were a universal “condition” then everyone who experienced a specific event would react the same, which is clearly not the case.

While it is always difficult to parse out influences and causes, I believe that the lack of competent parents serving as calm, assertive pack leaders to children, is one factor for establishing this baseline of anxiety.

The second layer to my theory is that the overall lack of social structure (aka “a pack”) that we have in society now. The Mindhack blog discusses war as a cause of many PTSD cases. Back in the distant past, when a young man went off to war, he probably went with other young men from his same village. They stuck together and supported each other. Even in the civil war, units were formed by town and state. Ancient battles were also fought to protect or advance the cause of a specific tribe or clan. Any trauma experienced could be justified as being in the name of a very worthy cause. And was also probably celebrated when the warriors returned home.

Now, we have the opposite:  Warriors going off individually to fight sporadic battles in obscure places for unclear reasons. Then coming home randomly and without fanfare. For Vietnam era veterans, they even came home to hatred and protests.

If we had more pack leaders and more balanced followers and secure “packs” in society today, I believe we’d see less PTSD.  And less of every other kind of “mental illness.”

What do you think causes PTSD?