Iron Man 3 explores the life of Tony Stark after he nearly died to save the world in The Avengers movie. Grabbing on to a nuclear bomb and entering a wormhole in New York City was enough to save everyone on the planet, but for Stark, there were long-term consequences. Throughout Iron Man 3, Stark struggles to sleep at night and when he does, he has nightmares about the events in New York. When asked about that day, he avoids the conversation because he does not want to think about the events. His experience that day makes it difficult to live a normal life and the people around him notice the change. Despite the humor used in the movie when discussing his problems, Stark is a great example of a serious condition: Post-traumatic stress disorder.
As the name suggests, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that some people develop after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. War is the most common event that people think of, but car accidents, sexual abuse, and near-death experiences are other common situations that lead to PTSD. Individuals as young as 6 years old can be diagnosed with PTSD if they experience these and other traumatic situations. Although PTSD is linked to trauma, this does not mean that every person who experiences trauma will suffer from PTSD. It is estimated that only 7-8% of people will experience it in their lifetime.
Tony Stark displayed several common signs of PTSD including nightmares involving the traumatic event and avoidance of places that reminded him of the event. People may also have trouble concentrating and constantly think about the situation that occurred. Many signs of PTSD may be ignored by those who experience them because they believe there is another cause.
According to Dr. Devin Vicknair, the director of behavioral health for our NGMC Family Medicine Residency program, it is common for patients in our clinic to speak with their physician about symptoms of stress and anxiety without realizing that the symptoms may be linked to a traumatic event. For example, patients may describe fatigue, headaches, poor concentration, less socialization, changes in appetite, panic attacks, and sleeping too much or very little. Many people will experience these symptoms, but if they are linked to a traumatic event and last longer than a month, their symptoms are likely due to PTSD.
So how do we treat PTSD? Unlike Stark, who saves the world again and gives up his role as Iron Man to live a normal life, treating PTSD involves creating a plan based on the needs of each person who experiences it. For some, counseling sessions to help understand the cause of their disorder may be enough. For others, medication may be needed. Research has shown, however, that combining the two methods has the greatest chance of improving PTSD and other similar disorders. Treatment does not have to last forever. Some people complete their treatment after a month, while others can take longer than a year. Dr. Vicknair states there is newer research that some people can experience “Post Traumatic Growth.” This means that part of their healing may mimic some of Tony Stark’s mission, which is a new-found perspective on life. People who engage in post-traumatic growth tend to have a new perspective on life, enhanced relationships, utilize personal strengths and some use their experience to help others.
Although we cannot prevent the incidents that cause PTSD, it is important to educate people so that they can recognize it and seek treatment. Living with PTSD can negatively affect a person’s life in many ways, but with the proper treatment, people can live a normal life despite the trauma that they have experienced.
For more information on PTSD, including risk factors, treatment, and suicide prevention, please visit the following webpages created by the National Institute of Mental Health:
For local primary care involving PTSD or other health concerns, please visit the NGPG Family Medicine website for more information or to schedule an appointment.