Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • By Swami Sunirmalananda
  • October 2004

The Happy Family
‘Happy family!’ remarked everyone who new the Ghoshs. Asim Ghosh and his wife had two sons. Everyone anticipated the younger, Arindam, to stand first in his exams that year. The elder, Anupam, had already made a mark on life. Everything was going on well until that fatal evening.

Some friends had come home that evening and Mrs Ghosh was joyfully entertaining them. The telephone rang. It was a shocking call. Anupam had met with a fatal accident.
All went dark since that moment. The parents were devastated. Mrs Ghosh never recovered from the trauma. She began to see her dead son’s tragic face repeatedly in sleep. It appeared that everyone and everything was against her. She worsened day by day. Her husband developed cardiac troubles, which told upon everything—finance, peace, security, and happiness—of the family. Arindam saw the distress of the family, and his mother’s sudden bursts of anger, and became depressed. He lost his top position in exams easily. The ‘happy family’ was history now.

What is PTSD?
PTSD! This is one of the most challenging diseases of the world today. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), USA, says that during a year an astounding five million people have this disease in the United States alone. ‘About 3.6 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 to 54 (5.2 million people) have PTSD during the course of a given year,’ declares its bulletin. According to the PTSD Alliance, ‘An estimated 5 percent of Americans—more than 13 million people—have PTSD at any given time.’ The situation in a developing nation like India could be similar, though many of us are ignorant of it.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD for short, is a grave anxiety problem of the modern world of competition, speed, and diversity. Children, youth, the middle-aged, and the old—anyone can suffer from it. Though this disease is predominantly seen in adults who have suffered abuse as children, there are innumerable cases where people suffer from PTSD for many other reasons. War-torn countries have been ravaged by PTSD. Natural calamities like earthquakes and floods have contributed no less. PTSD can come to any one, anytime, if that person is weak and can’t withstand the shocks of life. The shocks could be of any type: war, calamities, and death of dear ones, losing jobs, assaults, violence, divorce, estrangement, and even minor and insignificant incidents like failing in exams, seeing a tragic incident, and so on.

The Problem
The symptoms, according to NIMH, USA, immediately after suffering from a traumatic experience are sleeplessness, shock, rise in blood pressure, experiencing the tragic event repetitively in the mind, having dreadful nightmares and palpitation, becoming extremely agitated when seeing the spot, items, or people associated with the trauma, having no control over emotions, etc. NIMH says: ‘Most people with PTSD try to avoid any reminders or thoughts of the ordeal. PTSD is diagnosed when symptoms last more than one month.’ Further, the tragedy of the whole thing is that symptoms lie in a state of hibernation in the victim’s subconscious, to burst out months or even years later, if there is even a little suggestion.

The Cause
Life is stressful. Competition begins with birth and doesn’t appear to end until death. Modern techniques are such that the child in the womb too could suffer from acute stress because there’s always the fear that the mother may reject it. So life begins with stress. Then comes the acute concern for a successful schooling, good college education, big job, suitable promotion, peaceful marriage, and retirement benefits. After that there are the problems of aging, medical attention, and care until death. Even after death, to burn the dead body in some crematorium demands some competitiveness.

There are several other problems subsequent to competition. These are: insecurity, divorce, estrangement, and lack of love. Even unending traffic jams, power failure on hot days, and other creations of the present complex social set up can create tension, pick up steam, and this tension could be carried to worse ends by weak minds. Further, there is the danger of burglary, molestation, hurt, or even murder while under one’s own roof, what to speak of on the streets. So life is a series of stressful episodes. All our energies are spent in overcoming day-to-day stress. Little is left for creativity.

Over and above this, there are unbearable shocks that come to everyone at one time or the other in life. So no one is happy all one’s life. All is well, but nothing ends well. When we think we are happy and prosperous, there comes the lethal blow, and we are shattered. All our brilliance, intellect, knowledge, learning, money, power, glory, and so on become damp squibs before mental agony and problems like PTSD.

The Remedy
The central problem with PTSD is with memory. When something happens to me all of a sudden, and that keeps disturbing me, it is a problem concerning memory. According to psychologists and psychiatrists, counselling helps. Talking to patients who have suffered traumatic experiences has helped them in the past considerably in letting off steam. Re-living the incident also helps to some extent. Scientists are still doing a lot of research in this field. They, it is said, have found out that a part of the brain called the hippocampus is constituted slightly differently in PTSD cases, that stress hormones are pronounced in such cases, and so on.

Apart from counselling, doctors use group therapy, cognitive therapy, and so on too. Cognitive therapy is the technique that psychologists use to change the way people look at tragic things and events. Some particular event must have caused intense agony to someone. That situation can be changed with some success. How? By changing the emotions associated with it. An American war veteran had suffered under the Japanese while in their prison. The acute agony had left deep scars on his body and mind. Every night, even after years, this ex-soldier would wake up sweating, shouting, and having endless nightmares. It so happened that a Japanese too was having the similar problems, far away in Japan, because of the guilt of having tortured an American soldier—our man. The two met, the one excused the other, and there was peace. Change the person’s outlook of the event and situation from negative to positive. This process is not foolproof though.

The problem with troubles like PTSD is, they themselves are not fatal or harmful, but they lead to fatal and life-destroying ailments. A person who has experienced a shattering experience in life will take a very long time to overcome the after-effects of the trauma. If the person cannot overcome it, he or she is sure to become a patient and a misfit for life.

Life is Valuable
Life is precious. It should not be squandered away for trifles. Shocks come, sufferings come, there will be treachery, cheating, horrible sins committed on our very face, and we might see people on whom we depended most betraying us. Everything is possible in this world. Just because these troubles are there, should we breakdown and waste our precious lives?

It’s undoubtedly true we love our relatives and friends, and their suffering and demise tells upon us. But should we breakdown when there is some bereavement? Should one life be wasted because of another? There are countless elderly people in the world—millions of them—whose parents have died, whose wives or husbands have died. But life goes on.

Are We Helpless Victims?
We may say that sufferings and shocks are beyond our control; that all logic fails when the lethal blow comes. True; but there are ways to withstanding and overcoming them. Calling the doctor is a post-traumatic remedy. Preparing for traumas and tragedies is preventive.

What should we do to prevent such catastrophes? Strengthen ourselves!

The doctor’s remedy—medicines, counselling, cognitive approach, and so forth are all excellent. The medical field is progressing fast in the field of research, true. But something more is needed. We should go deeper. Let’s root out the problem instead of trying superficial remedies. When there is a boil somewhere on the body, applying ointment is good; but antibiotics are the best.

Change Outlook of Life
You may be the most modern individual of India, with numerous degrees, and the richest. You may follow the latest fashions in dress and style, drink and dance daily in pubs to western tunes. You may hate tradition and culture. Yet sufferings, shocks and problems will come to you also. You yourself will become old, and die—now or later. So blows and sufferings don’t spare the modern guy—they are universal, and come to all. This means that mere modernity doesn’t mean we are safe and sound.

There was a time, not long ago, when science and medicine decried prayer, meditation, God, and so on as superstitions, myths, and foolish pastimes. Times are changing. Rather, science is progressing—from infancy to maturity. With this, silly notions are being given up. Millions the world over are taking to yoga and meditation—even as an exercise. Prayer has become an important tool for healing. Strength and maturity heal. To keep away problems like PTSD, then, a few principles are to be borne in mind.

Principles for a Better Life
How are we to become mature and strong? Here are some keys:  
1. Know the Fact: When the Buddha declared that life is suffering, he was not discussing religion: he was telling a plain and simple truth. To think life is full of happiness is immaturity. So let every child be told that life, though it appears to be bright and beautiful, is suffering, essentially. Is this pessimism? No, this is a statement of fact. If all life is suffering, should we commit suicide? Of course not. We should lead enlightened lives. So the next thing that the child should be taught how to live in this world of suffering.

2. Preparing for the Inevitable: Since life is suffering, let us be prepared for the bad times—for shocks and unsavoury events that life may bring us—even when we are in milk and honey. Let us not be rudely awakened to reality when traumatic experiences unnerve us. The next question is, how to remain calm and unperturbed when traumatic experiences strike us. For this, strength of mind is needed.

3. Exercise the Mind: Most of us neglect mental health but care only for the body. We exercise it, run, walk, diet—but problems don’t go. The mind also should be strengthened. How to make the mind strong? Give proper food and exercise to it as you do to the body.

4. Concentration is Exercise: What is mental exercise? All the other methods of strengthening the mind—karate, hiking, bicycling, running—fail. The age-old technique is practising concentration. To concentrate is not religion—it is a perfect science. Why concentration? If the river flows in a hundred streams, you can’t manufacture power out of that. Again, using a single jet of water, they make holes in stone too! Such is the power of concentration. We should make our minds one-pointed through effort. Such a concentrated mind is the strong mind, and is a success wherever it is put—be it education, work, business, or spirituality.

 Therefore every day, without fail, each one of us should try to concentrate the mind for some time: better on God, on some holy object or anything for that matter. This is meditation. The mind is running restlessly in a thousand directions. Energy is being dissipated unnecessarily. We are getting exhausted unnecessarily. By practising concentration, we are building a dam to our energy, and strengthening the mind too. Thus we can be fresh even after a day’s hard work. Moreover, such a strong mind is always alert—it is never dull. When shocks come, it not only anticipates them but also faces them boldly. Such a mind is the scientific mind and not one that calls itself ‘modern’.

 A mature outlook of life and strengthening the mind; …the third need is proper diet to the mind. What is the proper diet?
5. Prayer is Protein: Medicine too has decided, finally, that in any cure, if 50% is due to medicine, 50% is due to prayer. So we should pray. Prayer is the best protein given to the mind. What is needed is the heart to pray fervently, for whatever we need. Along with it there are other forms of protein, like studying good books, thinking higher things, etc.

6. Why Prayer? We said life is suffering. This is the fact. But our goal or ideal is bliss. Not suffering. We are all searching for bliss and peace. A PTSD case fervently wishes that he/she was in peace again. So prayer is needed.

Maturity, strengthening the mind through exercise and diet; and what next?

7. Harnessing the Power: A strong and mature mind can work wonders instead of brooding over past mistakes or past sufferings. Energy is canalised in positive directions, and there is bliss and peace. 99% of us die without using at least 90% of our mind’s powers. Imagine the wastage! A strong mind is therefore necessary, since it has a strong memory too: both are interconnected. Even memory can be strengthened through exercising that faculty. How? Take this example: Don’t rush to the dictionary if you have forgotten the meaning of a word. Wait. Be calm. The mind will bring out that. This is exercising the mind. Through such effort, we can regulate the random movements of memory—the sudden jolts it gives by bringing to mind unhappy events—and leading purposeful lives.

Imagine an idiot who has all gadgets but doesn’t know how to use them. We so-called scientific people are like that at present. The wise person has gadgets, and has perfect control over them too.

Becoming Victorious
Who is a vanquisher? In this world, it is neither the rich nor the ‘modernized’ weakling that succeed. It is only a quiet individual who has strength of mind to face difficulties boldly, who considers trials and happiness as tests and treats them equally, and that is the true hero. Problems like PTSD are no problems at all for such virtuous.

A person with a balanced, mature and strong mind leads a meaningful life every moment of his life. His life is perpetual joy. He no doubt has his quota of suffering—born of his karma. But he is not devastated. He remains calm. Such a one is called the perfect being. And, finally, a strong and mature mind can ward off numerous physical ailments too, which weak minds suffer from.

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