One-off traumas are awful to experience, but generally, if it seems like a singular event, people get over it fairly well. It’s the experience of living with fear, and having the unthinkable become normal that does the longer term damage. This is what underpins shell shock, as experienced by soldiers. Post traumatic stress disorder is just as likely for civilians after wars. However, being crippled by fear is not an experience unique to this level of hostile experience. People who experience much lower levels of bullying, abuse, persecution or difficulty over a long period can end up just as scarred. It’s not a very well understood problem, nor is it much talked about outside support groups for the afflicted.
People coming out of long term bullying, or abuse can be just as psychologically damaged as people coming out of war zones and can display all the same kinds of symptoms as shell shock. This is not because victims of these apparently lesser problems are somehow being weak or pathetic. This is a biological process that has everything to do with how fear acts on the body. It is a very bodily condition. Once you can get your head in on the process, you’re actually moving towards healing. Prolonged fear causes physical sickness and needs treating more like an ailment of the body and less like some kind of character failing.
There are a number of things that can happen to a person. If you are constantly victimised and nothing you do will protect you, you will come to believe that the whole world is hostile and threatening. You may be unable to respond to even mild setbacks, and feel overwhelming despair in face of even the smallest problems. You may build fear associations such that leaving the house becomes unbearable. For me, it was postmen. I still break into a cold sweat if I see a postman, or post van. I know why, but that doesn’t stop me. When you have lost power and control in your life, the idea of being able to solve problems, or being able to cope barely exists in your head. Each new scenario is there to punish you further, to take you apart, to kick you again. The loss of hope is a consequence of living with fear.
You may develop superstitious beliefs about actions or behaviours that will keep you safe. This can lead to obsessive and compulsive disorders. People only feel safe when they have performed rituals that, from the outside, look crazy and irrelevant. The desire to be safe may also lead to passivity, acquiescence. The abused woman may make no sound when she is beaten if acknowledging pain makes it worse. She may become unable to vocalise any kind of pain at all. The abused child may learn to do anything at all to please adults, in the hopes of avoiding further torment and thus become even more vulnerable.
Once your body has learned fear as normality, things go a bit crazy. The fear responses happen when there’s almost nothing to trigger them. That can mean heart racing, stomach heaving panic attacks that leaving you weeping and fighting for breath, and not even knowing why. The experience of this kind of bodily panic suggests that there must be something terrible going on, you just don’t know what it is yet. When terrible has become normal, that’s not irrational at all.
There was a cure for shell shock. All you had to do was get the soldiers out of the war zone, give them total rest and tranquillity, gentle physical activity and time outdoors. With peace and the right support, many would heal. The only way to break the cycles of physical terror, is to bodily remove the sufferer from the source of their fear, support them to feel safe, keep their environment unthreatening and gradually rebuild their sense of what ‘normal’ ought to look like.
This is one of the reasons why those apparently lesser forms of harm can turn out to be the most damaging. Short of going into a hospital, your chances of getting a few gentle, stress free weeks in order to heal are slim. The longer you are trapped in a fearful situation, the more normal it becomes. A few weeks might enable you to recover from a few months in a war zone, but what if you’ve been a victim for a decade? Making a new ‘normal’ so that you are not afraid all the time, is not going to be so quick. A good doctor can do a lot to help a person, but a careless one may feed paranoia and reinforce feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. Add in the social stigma of mental illness, the fear of having your children taken away, or losing your job, and the fear itself becomes self perpetuating.
Fear does not always show on the outside. Panic attacks, and expressions of a terror that is rooted in your body like a parasitic plant, are humiliating. Most sufferers go to a lot of effort to hide it.
What would you do if you saw someone succumb to what appeared to be irrational panic? Tell them to pull themselves together? Mock them? Pity them? Avoid them? And if it happened to you, who could you go to for support? Who could you tell? Who would hold your hand and help you rebuild your life?
There but for the grace of… what? Go any of us. The going is easy and there are plenty of people who will happily take you there. The coming back is very, very hard.