Shell Shock: The Ancestor of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

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Shell Shock: The Ancestor of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Photo by: HTWE via Shutterstock


After World War I had ended, young men who had served in the military were still struggling to recover from the terrors and clashes they experienced in combat. Many soldiers had returned to their homes blind, deaf, mute and paralyzed without any physical damage that could explain why they were in such a tragic physical condition.

In a report by BBC, it says that initially, experts believed that these were induced by soldiers that had been exposed to exploding shells on the battlefield. Later on, medical experts discovered that there were more serious causes that led them to be in their shell-shocked state and that even the soldiers who were not assigned to the front lines could be affected.

The Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge states in their article One Hundred Years Ago: Shell Shock, that traumatized state of the soldiers had first been identified by Charles Myers in February 1915 as Shell Shock. His study published in the paper The Lancet.



Shell Shock Definition

According to The Hindu, shell shock is defined as the psychological damage that is caused by extended exposure to different traumatic combat situations that involve high levels of violence. It is also called combat stress and war neurosis. It is considered to be a precursor of the modern concept of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  

In Myer’s research, the three patients who were part of his study regularly encountered exploding shells and he hypothesized that the pressure from these may have induced a traumatic brain injury (TBI). He also noticed other similarities in the tree such having a defective sense of taste and smell, amnesia and that they were all emotionally unstable.

Together with William McDougal who was also a psychologist, they proposed that a soldier who was suffering from Shell Shock was attempting to deal with his trauma by splitting or repressing their recollection of the event.



The indicators of someone who is shell-shocked as described by the American Psychological Association are having bad dreams, confusion, shaking, fatigue, headache, having no sense of balance, damaged sense of sight, hearing, and sensation. Other symptoms include paralysis, limping and muscle contractions, irregular heartbeat, dizziness, loss of appetite, hysteria and anxiety, and depression.



The Fate of Soldiers Who Were Shell Shocked

Soldiers who were shell-shocked were not only viewed as cowardly and emotionally fragile but as faking an illness in order to be excused from their duty. They would be put on trial, pronounced guilty of cowardice, desertion or insubordination and convicted. Some soldiers who were accused of cowardice were shot as punishment.  

Since those who displayed symptoms of being shell shocked were removed from the army, the military was reluctant in acknowledging the issue because that would mean that lesser soldiers would be available for war. Myers also received many objections from those in the military who did not believe that Shell Shock was a real illness. Some critics thought that instilling more military discipline in the soldiers was the solution to it.

Military medical officers who had little knowledge about the condition subjected them to cruel treatments such as electric shock treatment, solitary confinement, emotional deprivation, disciplinary treatment and shaming, and physical re-education.  Soldiers who were “lucky” enough were treated with less harsh treatments including dietary treatments, hypnosis, massages and were told to rest.


Major Hurst and His Miracle Treatments

After some time, an English military major came up with miracle treatments which he performed in the hospital Seale Hayne located in the UK. He was known for helping 90% of soldiers heal in a single session. He specialized in occupational therapy. He made patients manage their trauma through creativity. One of the methods he used to cure soldiers affected by Shell Shock was to send them to the peaceful Devon countryside. To help them heal from their hysteria, he would let the soldiers work on the farm. He would also allow his patients to relive their memories on Dartmoor where battlefields were rebuilt. The patients were also urged to write and produce a magazine, which had a gossip column titled Ward Whispers.

One of the patients who recovered from consulting him was Private Percy Meek. Meek was featured in his film which portrayed the treatments given to shell-shocked soldiers in Britain.


Depression is one of the signs of being shell-shocked / Photo Credit via Pixabay


Modern Treatment

Myers said that the three important elements in treating Shell Shock were “promptness of action, suitable environment and psychotherapeutic measures.” says that since the symptoms of Shell Shock are seen to be similar to PTSD, mental health experts have used the same kinds of treatment. Veterans who suffer from Shell Shock may benefit from participating in group therapy, where they can discuss their experiences with other veterans and find and suggest ways to cope with their trauma. They may also try practicing relaxation techniques, taking medication or seeking other forms of therapy.



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