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Medical Dumps for Writers: Writing Characters with PTSD

Hello, your friendly neighborhood writer here to tell you more medical facts to incorporate accuracy into your writing! Remember that this is not real medical advice, and should only be used in fictional circumstances.

Today we're talking about writing characters with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. This is a mental illness commonly associated with military veterans, but can manifest after any sort of traumatic event.

PTSD is way more common than you think, affecting 8% of women and 4% of men. But it is one of the most vilified mental illnesses, and fiction portrays this. You see characters strangling their loved ones, blacking out while assaulting other people, and having violent outbursts.

However, people with PTSD are not inherently violent or evil people. Rather, something violent or evil has been done to them, and they are suffering for it. Those with PTSD do not react typically with rage or violence, and though it has happened, it's not the only thing to focus on.

What does it feel like to have PTSD?

A big part of PTSD is being stuck in a triggered response of fight, flight, or freeze. It's an adrenaline response that happens only in times of danger, but for those with PTSD, they can have a variety of triggers. This can be things like certain noises, smells, loud sounds, or touches.

Once triggered, the body will begin to panic. At this point, your character might be having a flashback or a memory that they can't seem to shake. It can be as small as not being able to stop thinking about it, or as big as feeling like you're back in the experience reliving it. Your heart rate will quicken and your mind will race.

Another common symptom is avoidance, and for some people, this isn't even an obvious thing. But for others, avoidance can be something that takes up their entire lives. Characters with PTSD will avoid anything that reminds them of the experience, and can be triggered back into an adrenaline response when faced with these triggers or things they avoid.

There's a lot of negative thinking involved in PTSD as well, such as thoughts that you are inherently bad and you deserved it, feeling hopeless about the future, memory issues, feeling detached from family or friends, not enjoying things you used to.

One not spoken about often aspect of PTSD is its recklessness. Your characters will do things recklessly and dangerously, such as driving too fast or taking drugs and alcohol. This can help to portray the almost blatant disregard for their own life that some patients with PTSD will face.

PTSD is not an inherently violent illness, and it is cruel to stereotype the most hurt of our population as the most violent. By portraying PTSD accurately and honestly, you can help to reshape thinking.

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