The Psychological Effects of War

The Role of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Veterans

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War has a tremendous impact on mental health. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a diagnosis that was first made following the Vietnam war. Veterans who saw combat in Vietnam were found to have a number of symptoms not clearly documented in any other diagnostic category. But in fact, these symptoms had been observed in combat veterans in many previous wars. It seems that PTSD is constantly being rediscovered.

The Psychological Toll of War

War has always taken a toll. Accounts throughout history tell of nightmares and other emotional problems associated with the horrors of war. It seems that we repeatedly discover the effects of trauma on humans every time we go to war. Terms like "combat fatigue" and "shell shock" were used in the past to describe some of the effects of combat. These terms are misleading because they imply that the effects of combat are short-term. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) the term "Acute Stress Disorder" is used for a similar syndrome lasting less than 30 days.

It was really the veterans from the Vietnam war who made society more aware of the reality of PTSD, which in turn has helped those in the mental health professionals gain an understanding for others impacted by trauma around the world. Unfortunately, PTSD usually affects people's families as well, not just individuals.

Study after study in other parts of the world come up with the same results: People who have been exposed to the trauma of war are much more likely to have symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. For those who have actually been in combat, the risk of psychological disorders is also greatly increased and delayed-onset PTSD is frequent.

Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

There are four kinds of symptoms:

  1. Reliving the traumatic event. This may include having flashbacks, nightmares or seeing, smelling or hearing something that triggers the memory of the traumatic event. 
  2. Avoiding situations, people or places that remind you of the traumatic event, such as staying away from driving if you were in a car accident.
  3. A change for the worse in the way you view yourself and/or others, as well as what you believe. For instance, you might stop trusting people or feeling love for the people closest to you.
  4. Being continually on edge, looking for danger and/or angry and irritable.

It's normal to experience stress after a traumatic event, and most people's symptoms get better after some time. If you find that the above symptoms are lasting for longer than three months, are causing disruption to your life and/or are extremely upsetting, it's time to seek professional help.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Happens For Other Reasons Too

We now know that PTSD can be caused by many other traumas. Child abuse survivors and survivors of plane crashes have many of the same symptoms as combat veterans. Psychotherapy and medications are both helpful for the symptoms of PTSD.

The symptoms sometimes last for years, and there is not always a cure. Techniques such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) may be helpful, especially for single-incident trauma. The sooner a person gets help, the better the outcome is likely to be.


American Psychiatric Association, 1994. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, D.C.

Alexander C. McFarlane, "The impact of war on mental health: lest we forget ." World Psychiatry (October 2015).

"Symptoms of PTSD." U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2016).