I touched a slight bit on PTSD in the Let’s Write Fear post, but I figure this is a complex emotional state and needs more detail.
Of course, I’m not a mental health professional, just a writer, so this is in no way aimed to be an educational post for someone in the clutches of PTSD (if you are, please seek out pro help if you can). The aim of this post is simply to inspire authors to dig deeper when it comes to writing more dimensional and realistic characters.
This is a post about how traumatic events might influence characters, which means traumatic events will be mentioned. Not in detail, but they’re there. You’ve been warned.
This is also a topic close to my little heart, as I feel that so many stories out there neglect to touch on or remotely handle the trauma (both emotional and physical) that characters have suffered. So often characters just breeze through whatever horrible things happened to them or they were forced to do, with nary a care after a week or so. I personally believe it will remove the stigma from mental health issues in real life if we see fictional characters dealing with their shit.
Before we begin, I’d recommend you check out my posts on writing fear, sadness, nerves, and anger, as many of the physical sensations and behaviours of PTSD are similar to those we experience when feeling sad, angry, nervous, or scared. Also, I’ve written about my personal experiences with panic attacks, which might be useful to you if you’re writing those. And panic attacks likely will come up when you’re writing about PTSD.
So, are you ready? Let’s write.
What is PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)?
- When a person is caught in a traumatic event, their body goes into survival mode, and some of the functions non-essential to survival are shut down (such as digestion).
- One of the shut-down functions is short-term memory. The person being traumatised doesn’t remember the details of the event (the colour of the car that crashed into theirs, what the assailant was wearing, etc). In some cases, the person won’t remember anything about the trauma afterwards, which could cause a whole level of distress on its own.
- Once the danger has passed, brain functions resume and the memories of the trauma are stored as past events. But, with PTSD, the brain doesn’t store the memory as a past event, which means the person is continuously trapped in an ‘in danger’ state, and the mind handles the traumatic memory as if it’s still happening.
- This means the person feels anxious even when they’re physically safe.
- PTSD can occur in people who lived through the trauma personally, people who witnessed the event, or people who aid in the trauma (first responders, doctors and nurses, etc). In some cases, people experience PTSD because of the trauma suffered by a loved one. They don’t have to live through it themselves to be affected.
- Two people can live the exact same trauma at the same time, and react completely differently to it. While one might be able to continue as normal, the other might experience PTSD.
- Characters suffering from PTSD will probably relive their trauma. This can happen in the form of nightmares, remembering, or flashbacks.
- A flashback literally puts the person back at the scene of the trauma because the brain is still in ‘in danger’ mode. They smell the smells, feel the sensations, the panic, the heart palpitations, etc, until the flashback ends.
- To understand flashbacks, we have to understand trauma triggers. This is not like the popular slang of expressing being triggered by anything that makes us feel offended, uncomfortable, or upset. Offended, uncomfortable, or upset DOES NOT equal triggered.
- A trigger can be caused by external inputs such as senses (sight, sound, smell, etc), the anniversary/place of an event, holidays or gatherings, or anything internal like stress, illness, or physical pain. These triggers cause feelings or memories associated with trauma to arise in a person, which can result in overwhelming sadness, anxiety, panic, anger, or other emotions.
- Internal triggers include physical pain, illness, thoughts and emotions (like anger, worry, sadness, remembering something, etc), or sensations (like a quick pulse, being touched in a certain way, etc).
- External triggers can be anything. Sights, sounds, tastes, places. They come from books, articles, movies, and TV shows. People who resemble someone who played a part in the trauma, birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, family gatherings.
- Every trauma trigger will have a unique meaning for the person being triggered and will tie into the traumatic event in one way or another. They can happen at random, or the person touched by the trauma can know there’s a chance to be triggered and prepare for it (this is why so many books and movies etc include trigger warnings these days).
- Once a person is triggered, they might have a panic attack, become depressed or enraged, disengage, or behave out of character (among other things).
- Some triggers are obvious. For example, someone influenced by violence might react to scenes in movies or TV shows depicting violence. Others are subtle, and the person might not even know something could be a trauma trigger until they react.
- The intensity of symptoms might vary. Sometimes, a character might be able to cope for a prolonged period of time, and a trigger might take them back seemingly out of nowhere. If they have been trained to deal with the emotions, they might be able to continue after the triggering event.
The Body Language and Speech of PTSD
- The character might act numb. Slow reactions (if any), eg staring into space, not speaking, acting as if they don’t feel anything.
- They might be hesitant to go to certain places, interact with certain people, eat certain foods, or partake in any activity that could remind them of their trauma.
- They might also eat more, consume more alcohol or other mind-numbing substances, or take up other vices (like smoking), employed as coping mechanisms. Characters caught in a state of hypervigilance might face an uptake in physical activity, train harder, work out more, etc, in case of an emergency.
- They might have trouble sleeping, or become fearful of sleep because of the nightmares. Characters who don’t have nightmares might still have trouble sleeping due to heightened anxiety. As this character is caught in an ‘in danger’ state, they might see threats everywhere, which could also keep them awake at night. In this case, sleep deprivation might become an issue, which will probably result in even higher anxiety levels and emotions, hallucination, and other issues (I might write about this in the future).
- In characters who are young children, the traumatic events might be relived in play.
- They might be jumpy, overly anxious, or easily irritated. Looking around all the time, a clenched jaw, balled fists, tense muscles.
- Because of heightened anxiety, these characters possibly have trouble concentrating.
- The anxiety, sleep, avoidance of activities or food, or the increased consumption of foods or substances mean this character will undergo a physical change. They’ll probably lose or gain weight or muscle tone, might not worry about their physical appearance or hygiene anymore, might dress differently, etc.
- Characters suffering from trauma might act completely out of character: the leader-type might be fearful, the timid might take the lead, and the sweet one might be aggressive.
- Because some characters will do anything they can to avoid the trauma and might be acting out of character, they could drastically change their appearance. Recklessness is a symptom of PTSD, and this could manifest in new tattoos, new hairstyles, different clothes, etc.
- Characters might either be unable to stop talking about their trauma, or might be unwilling to talk about it at all.
What PTSD Feels Like
- The character likely experiences constant negative thoughts, eg ‘everyone is an enemy’, ‘I am alone’, ‘I am responsible’, ‘I am broken’, ‘nobody can be trusted’, ‘I’m still in danger’ etc. Some of these might be recurring, others might be spontaneous.
- The character might replay the trauma in their memory, almost like a loop, no matter how they try to suppress it.
- The character might not want to partake in actions they previously enjoyed. Everything feels like too much effort, or they might feel they don’t deserve things that had once made them happy.
- They might try to keep constantly busy, anything to keep their minds from returning to the trauma.
- The character will probably want to cry a lot. Burning eyes, blurred vision, runny nose, that sort of thing.
- The character might mistrust people close to them, actively push everyone away, or feel the same disinterest they feel towards activities when it comes to the people they love.
- This character might also be startled easily, be on the constant lookout for danger, or become reckless. If this is the case, they’ll likely have a faster than usual pulse, their stomach might be tight, they might experience the sensation of being watched. Also, excess of sweat, shaking, etc.
- Because of heightened anxiety, this character might constantly feel nauseous. This might result in a dry throat and mouth or too much saliva.
- Blame might become a big issue for this character. They might blame themselves as though they could have prevented the trauma, blame themselves for not being able to save someone else, or blame other people for not getting to them in time, or saving them. This character might also be super critical on themselves or others for how they have handled the trauma.
EDIT: Adding this helpful link in 2021. What NOT to say to someone with PTSD.
As a final note, every person will handle their trauma in a unique way. Though certain symptoms might be similar, trauma is a deeply personal thing, and every brain will find its own way to navigate it. There is no right or wrong. The most important thing is to seek out help if you’re dealing with this. You’re not alone.
If you’ve found this post to write about PTSD, I hope this little article helps you out. Just to join with what I said above somewhere, I feel we need to write well-rounded characters who deal with their trauma so the stigma surrounding these issues is lessened. The more we talk about it, the more people will be willing to admit to and work resolve their trauma. As someone who’s had to navigate the hell that is PTSD, I wish it had been normalised back then. Let’s do what we can to make it better for generations to come.