PTSD/PTG: Two Sides of a Coin

Last week, in my Religious Considerations and Democratic Pluralism post, I failed to note a scholar who spoke at the Politics, Pyschology and Ethics seminar that I mentioned at the end of the post. Her name is Cheryl Koopman and she is a professor of psychiatric research at Standford University. Koopman talked about her research into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Here are some basic facts that I gleaned:

Koopman’s research findings were centered around the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks, after which the incidence of PTSD increased dramatically in the United States, particularly in the New York metropolitan area.

PTSD is not just a disorder experienced by war veterans. It is now acknowledged that cancer victims and other trauma survivors can experience PTSD symptoms. Koopman said the nature of traumatic memory is for it to become disorganized. Often either too much or too little is recalled. It differs from narrative memory in that the past becomes indistinguishable from the present. Traumatic memory is not rational and categorical, but sensual. It consists of bodily memories. It is dissociative.

For example, watching footage of witnesses to the terrorist attacks, one can clearly see that they are in shock. PTSD victims get stuck in the shock. It is made worse by continually reliving the horror. Those who watched a lot of news coverage after 9/11 suffered more than those who didn’t. Here was the problem for our community in late 2001. TV or no TV, there was no escaping the reality for a good long time.

Three elements need to be present for someone to be diagnosed with PTSD:

  1. persistent intrusive symptoms
  2. persistent avoidance of reminders
  3. persistent increased arousal

Sleep problems are common and avoidance doesn’t work in the long run. Another finding is that earlier traumas can act as a vaccine against PTSD unless the previous traumas were also severe. For instance, both a rape victim who has been previously assaulted and one who has led a sheltered life will fare worse than a rape victim who has lived through a moderate trauma.

The bad news is that PTSD not only impacts mental and emotional health, it damages physical health. The good news is that, unlike some mental health problems, people recover from PTSD. Koopman suggested these avenues of healing:

  1. Social networks—being with people.
  2. Talking and/or writing about the trauma
  3. Symptom management: meditation, meaningful faith rituals, controlling thoughts volitionally, imagery/hypnosis

More good news is that in addition to PTSD, researchers have observed Post Traumatic Growth. Koopman noted that after 9/11, altruism increased markedly. NY Times columnist David Brooks has talked and written about this in regard to the presidential campaign. He sees 9/11 as the catalyst for our collective longing for unity and self-sacrifice.

PTSD and PTG can exist together. A person can really wish the trauma had not occured and yet be grateful for its lessons.