Critiquing the Language of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and PTSD Allyship

TW: Discussion of PTSD and potential triggers, including, but not limited to, rape, assault, mass shooting and military service.

I’ve seen a few lists and articles circulating the internet about how to be an ally to people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And while most make some salient points, they all fail in several crucial ways, which actually alienate many folks with PTSD.

A young woman sits on a pillow with her legs tucked into her chest and arms wrapped around her legs. Her head is tucked into her chest and knees. She is leaning against a wall, and on the wall we can see the shadow of a gate.
A young woman sits on a pillow with her legs tucked into her chest and arms wrapped around her legs. Her head is tucked into her chest and knees. She is leaning against a wall, and on the wall we can see the shadow of a gate.

First, let’s talk about what PTSD actually is. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder that is caused by feeling extreme fear and distress, almost always with a sense of being trapped, in regards to an event, or a series of events. For this definition, there are two very important aspects of PTSD we can glean.

First, there are two general types of PTSD. The first is acute PTSD, the type most people think of when they think of PTSD. Acute PTSD develops when you feel fear, distress, and a sense of being trapped in regards to a major traumatic event. Common examples include being raped, being a soldier in the military, or being present at a mass shooting. Any major event where loss of life or autonomy is imminent could theoretical cause acute PTSD in a person.

The second type of PTSD is called chronic, or complex, PTSD. This develops as a result of feeling fear, distress, and a sense of being trapped in regards to a series of small events that, by themselves, would not qualify as traumatic, but aggregated have an equal, if not worse, effect that a major traumatic event. Victims of domestic violence, school yard bullying, and systematic work place harassment are some examples of those who might develop chronic, or complex, PTSD.

The second aspect of PTSD that this definition highlights is that you do not need to be a victim to develop PTSD. This is a common misconception, and one that is particularly damaging to people with PTSD who would not consider themselves victims.

People who witness traumatic events can still develop PTSD, even if their life or autonomy is not at stake. And people who are perpetrators, or at least think of themselves as perpetrators, can still develop PTSD.

This is something that is often not thought of, but it’s crucial to understanding PTSD. If someone feels forced into doing something that they perceive will threaten the life or autonomy of someone else, they are at risk for developing PTSD. Folks in the military who develop PTSD are often do not consider themselves victims, at least in the traditional sense. Instead, many feel trapped or compelled into doing something they perceive will threaten the life or autonomy of someone else.

And then there are more common instances of non-victim PTSD, like if a school yard bully’s parents are telling them to harass certain kids. In that case, depending on the severity of the bullying, if the bully is fully cognizant of the effect of the bullying, and if the bully feels remorse for their actions, the bully is actually also at risk to developing PTSD.

Not everyone who feels fear, distress, and a sense of being trapped in regards to a traumatic event or series of microtraumatic events is will develop PTSD. The risk for developing PTSD has some genetic and epigenetic basis, that is that high risk for PTSD can be inherited. Speaking personally, I’d bet 90% of my family over the age of 15 has PTSD (though only a few of us have it diagnosed). We have faced a lot of intergenerational trauma over the past five generations, and while I can’t say this with absolute certain, it does seem as if that vulnerability to PTSD has been passed on to each generation.

Understanding PTSD development not simply as the result of isolated events, but at times as a community development due to a shared history of intergenerational trauma, can help contextualize the therapy of PTSD as less of an individual pursuit, and more as a communal pursuit. Again, speaking personally, over the years, some in my family has opened up about our shared experience with PTSD, and that has allowed us to heal together, in some cases in just small ways. We already share the experience of PTSD, and now we can share in the experience of dismantling it, and overcoming it.

Allyship Tip: As an ally to folks with PTSD, it’s important to understand these nuances of PTSD. First, by calling us victims, you can actually be perpetuating trauma, by making those with PTSD who do not feel like victims feel more stigmatized for their actions. Furthermore, situating PTSD as a community and family experience can ultimate help those of us dealing with it by allowing us to reach out to others who are also dealing with PTSD, to heal together with others who understand.

❤ Piija Suoynna Riistia

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