History Wars World War I

Today in military history: Psychiatrist reports on the effects of ‘Shell Shock’

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On Dec. 4, 1917, psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers reported on the phenomenon called “shell shock.”

Coined by soldiers, “shell shock” was the term for what we now understand today as symptoms of post-traumatic stress. It was a critical problem during the First World War, and one that, as today, was especially challenging to diagnose and treat.

As more and more troops reported feelings of fatigue, confusion, nightmares, impaired vision and hearing, and even uncontrollable crying and bodily tremors, doctors struggled to understand the cause.

Rivers, a pioneer in the field of warfare-related trauma, wrote about the repression of traumatic war experiences and its negative effects on the healing process. Rivers warned that repression, in addition to causing suffering for the individual, also put military units at risk because the service member could seem fine one moment but be triggered and incapacitated the next. 

He firmly argued that the warfighters must confront their trauma by talking about their experiences. One of the biggest challenges, Rivers found, was that the men tried to repress their traumatic experiences or extreme emotions; but by understanding the source of their troubles, Rivers could help them heal. Mostly, this meant fighting the stigma against PTSD and deprogramming the notion to “suck it up” — something modern warriors still struggle with.

The understanding of the psychological effects of trauma and war continues to evolve, but treating trauma remains one of the top concerns for veterans who serve during wartime.