The short answer: if you have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, let alone a catalogue of traumatic events, then to some extent – yes. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a huge collection of symptoms that might manifest as a syndrome, but very many of us are on the spectrum, if only to a small degree. It would be very odd to witness or experience a traumatic event and not to have any reaction. It would be inhuman not to be distressed by something distressing.
Patients often come into therapy wondering why things in their childhood, so long ago, should still affect them now. Some are dubious about it and find the idea ridiculous. But, really, wouldn’t it be more ridiculous if you had a whole childhood filled with all sorts of things and none of it had any effect on the adult person at all? It’s easy to understand that a severely abused child, kept in a dark room, beaten and tortured for years will grow up to be an adult with enormous difficulties. So, all of us are necessarily affected by the things we see and the things that happen to us.
Sometimes witnessing horror can have worse after-effects than experiencing it firsthand. To witness something terrible can leave a person with a feeling of helplessness as well as with the trauma of the event itself. (Freud noticed that it was the soldiers who returned from World War I without obvious physical injury who suffered most from what they then called Shell Shock). Of course, this silent witnessing can build up, particularly in a profession where observing some level of trauma becomes relatively routine.
I would argue that people do not get desensitized to violence or distress, but they learn how to repress it, how to switch themselves off and this has long-term effects on that person’s mental health because these (and any) unexpressed feelings haven’t gone away, they are just lying dormant. It’s often when the drama is over and we have relaxed again (or tried to) that the feelings take their chance to make themselves known.
Also, PTSD can be an unhelpful label. We have become accustomed to the term as describing intense flashbacks, sleepless nights, constant terror and an inability to function in the civilian world. Many people do suffer all those symptoms, but far more people suffer one or two of them, just sometimes. Those people don’t think they have PTSD. Someone who drinks a few glasses of wine every night wouldn’t label themselves an alcoholic. But, just because you aren’t an alcoholic, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a good idea to think about why you need to drink so regularly, and what the issues are that you’re trying to ignore by drinking. And it doesn’t mean you have to stop drinking either – it just might be useful to think through it.
So, PTSD is really a short-hand for the way people tend to feel after very traumatic stress. The feelings can be varied, short-lived or long-term, constant or sporadic. You might not need a lifetime of medication or a period of hospitalization. You might simply need to talk to someone, even for as little as an hour, about how you are, ideally before you repress it and before it comes back at you as a symptom.
A more useful question might be: Have you witnessed or experienced something traumatic and might it be a good idea to talk to someone about it? Do you feel anxious or depressed, are you plagued by thoughts and images about a horrific event? There’s no need to slap a label on ordinary human reactions (again, it would be very weird if you didn’t react) but there might be a need to tell someone in complete confidence, someone who will get it.
—Anna Mortimer, Therapist, Journalist and Co-founder of the Mind Field