The history of Traumatic Stress


Although trauma has been with us throughout history, (war, disaster, violence) the concept of trauma or traumatic stress has only been acknowledged or named as such in the last 150 years or so. According to Friedman, clinical attention only began to focus on the psychological impact of war among veterans in the 19th century. Here the focus was on cardiovascular (soldiers heart) or psychiatric symptoms (nostalgia, shell shock, combat fatigue, war neurosis) (Matthew Friedman, 2006, p. 3)

Judith Herman writes that “Trauma has a curious history- one of episodic amnesia.” Periods in our history, where there is “active investigation alternating with periods of oblivion” (Herman, 1992,p.7) The field of trauma has a “rich tradition… But has been periodically forgotten and must be periodically reclaimed.” It is interesting to read of the story of Sigmund Freud and Jean-Martin Charcot and their study of “hysteria” amongst the women of Vienna, this study captured the imagination of the public: “a venture into the unknown” (Herman, 1992) the women being studied had been victims of rape, violence and exploitation and who found refuge in the Salpetriere (an asylum transformed by Charcot into a modern hospital dedicated to studying neurology and psychiatry)

It was here that in following up Charcot’s foray into hysteria, that Freud released his Theses “The aetiology of Hysteria” a study of 18 case studies, concluding with a thesis that “ at the bottom of every case of hysteria, there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience” (Herman, 1992, p. 13) A startling conclusion for the people of Vienna, for the inference was that there were “ perverted acts against children” not only among the people of Paris, but also the bourgeois families of Vienna. Suffice to say, Freud within a year “privately repudiated the psychological origins of hysteria” and so, the study of trauma relapsed into another period of amnesia until the First World War, when the study of the impact of war on veterans began as mentioned above. This study of war neurosis and shell shock reached new heights after the Vietnam War with the development by anti-war veterans of “rap groups”, meetings where veterans relived and retold their experience of the Vietnam War. (Herman, 1992, p. 27) Within these groups, a sense of legitimacy was lent to the experience of the Vietnam veteran. They were allowed “the dignity of their distress”. A marine veteran, Michael Norman wrote:

Family and friends wondered why we were so angry. What are you crying about? They would ask. Why are you so ill-tempered and disaffected. Our fathers and grandfathers had gone off to war, done their duty come home and got on with it. What made our generation so different? As it turns out, nothing. No difference at all. (Herman, 1992)

Through their political consciousness, awareness about the psychological effect of war was raised.

A third wave of consciousness in the history of traumatic stress that began to rise up was during the 1970’s with the beginning of an acknowledgement that “violence is a routine part of women’s sexual and domestic lives” as the women’s liberation movements grew in strength.

It is interesting to note that this acknowledgement took place in groups that provided a sense of intimacy, confidentiality and truth telling. This sense of safety allowed for women to overcome the “barriers of denial, secrecy and shame that prevented them from naming their injuries” (Herman, 1992)

As we move from the international context and history of traumatic stress, and turn our attention to South Africa and its history fraught with violence and brutality, at times legitimized by a uniform, policy, and regime, we need to be asking ourselves the question:

“Is there a wave of consciousness that needs to rise, in South Africa, that questions our violent history and asks whether we have healed, are healing or still need to heal?"

Perhaps, the answer or solution lies with those who are trauma practitioners who must continue raising awareness about the effect of trauma and the healing value of “the truth must out.”

Philip Stoneman

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