When I was unwell last year, my husband Brian explained my symptoms in military terms: “You’ve been in the front line, and now you’ve got shell shock.” Brian had researched this condition while editing A Physician in Spite of Himself, the autobiography of DW Carmalt Jones who was in charge of a shell shock hospital during World War 1.
Stressed and exhausted by dealing with a series of medical and surgical emergencies in the family, I had developed a variety of symptoms. Repeated attacks of rapid irregular heart beat and breathlessness accompanied by high blood pressure, on two occasions so severe that I was taken to hospital by ambulance. Separate episodes of feeling very cold, or very hot, shaking all over, or suddenly feeling drained of energy and having to lie down. Loss of appetite and weight. Insomnia. The symptoms were mainly of a physical nature, but various medical tests did not indicate a definite diagnosis. As a former psychiatrist I knew they might be due to anxiety and depression, but a trial of antidepressant drugs made me worse.
Syndromes of this kind can be triggered by any sort of traumatic experience, especially when there seems no scope for controlling the situation or escaping from it. Most of the early descriptions were carried out on servicemen exposed to great physical and emotional stress in wartime. In the American Civil War, men who complained of palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath and fatigue but had no signs of organic heart disease were said to have “soldier’s heart”. Other terms included da Costa’s syndrome, cardiac neurosis, and neurasthenia. In World War 1, the condition of “shell shock” could include symptoms in many different bodily systems, for example headache, tremor, confusion, nightmares, loss of balance, impaired sight and hearing, as well as the cardiovascular symptoms listed above. Some sufferers received no sympathy or understanding, being accused of cowardice or malingering and punished by firing squad. Others were sent to field hospitals for a brief period of sleep, food and graded exercise before being returned to duty. In World War 2, British airmen who refused to fly on bombing missions were labelled as “lacking moral fibre” (LMF) and usually demoted to menial jobs. Some of these men would have been suffering from the type of illness described above, others just could not bring themselves to take part in the killing of civilians. LMF was highly stigmatised, and concealed as far as possible, so that when I came to write something about it in my novel Blue Moon for Bombers I found little published information. In more recent conflicts, notably the Vietnam war, attitudes were more sympathetic and it became more acceptable to talk about the psychological side of these conditions. The concept of “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) was born, and continues to generate a great deal of interest and research.
Body and mind are interconnected, and patients with stress-related illness usually have some combination of physical and mental symptoms. For this reason the orthodox medical system, in which the different specialties are separated, may not be well placed to meet their needs. Patients who present with mainly mental symptoms would often be diagnosed as having PTSD and referred to psychiatrists or psychologists, perhaps without having a medical evaluation to exclude the organic pathology that will in fact be present in some cases. Patients for whom physical symptoms predominate might find their way to cardiac, respiratory, neurological or other specialist clinics, and if no organic disease is found the psychological aspect may not be taken seriously if it is recognised at all. The plethora of terms that have been used for such conditions over the years – psychosomatic, functional, medically unexplained, somatoform, and many more – suggests the difficulty of understanding and managing them. Many patients turn to alternative therapies for a more holistic approach.
There is no specific treatment although different medications, psychological therapies and natural remedies prove helpful for individual patients. Sometimes the illness becomes chronic so I was fortunate that my own symptoms recovered within a year, with support from kind relatives and friends, orthodox and alternative healthcare professionals, and an improvement in my life situation.
Only a minority of people who are exposed to severe stress will develop a stress-related illness. Those who do may well feel ashamed about being over-sensitive and lacking in resilience, as I did myself, even though I have chosen to go public by writing about it in this blog and in a forthcoming memoir.