In this blog, we shall talk about the thousand-yard stare. We will begin by knowing about what it means, when does it happen and some ways we can use it to understand the underlying mental health illness that the person experiencing thousand-yard stare battles.
What is a thousand-yard stare?
A thousand-yard stare, or a two thousand-yard stare, is a phrase that was used for military personnel’s or combatant’s blank, wide-eyed, and particularly unfocused gaze into the distance when they see situations that would be overwhelming for people in general. The person fails to react in an emotionally appropriate manner during that situation. Currently, the term is used for people who experience this vacant gaze after being subjected to a traumatic event.
A Thousand-yard stare is a common symptom of a person suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD can happen to people who have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event like a natural disaster, death of a loved one, a close escape from their own death, war, and civil unrest, etc, and find it difficult to recover from the terrifying experiences.
There is no bar for what situation can cause or trigger PTSD for someone. Every individual has different emotional capabilities, reactions, and expressions towards the unsettling or horrible experiences they face. It is not necessary that a person has to be a part of the battle in order to have PTSD and it is not even necessary that every person who was a part of that very battle will develop PTSD.
The phrase ‘Thousand-yard stare’ was used for the first time by Life Magazine which had a picture of a soldier with the above-described gaze. The thousand-yard stare is also referred to as being ‘Shell-shocked’.
Symptoms co-occurring with the thousand-yard stare
Dissociation is a condition where the person feels a discord or disconnect with their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It feels like losing touch with the real world. Some other symptoms that people with disassociation issues complain about are often feeling that their heart is pounding too loud or their head feels like it is floating, feeling like a different person, feeling like their body is different from the world outside, having an out-of-body experience, becoming detached from significant others and the world in general. They may also have reduced sensitivity to pain.
Besides this people facing disassociation challenges may lack an understanding of space and time and sometimes even forget or fail to notice how they got in the place they did. They may have intense flashbacks from the past that may almost feel like the experience and situation are happening in real-time. During the times they are lost in their fantasy world they may feel like they cannot physically move or do anything. They may hear voices or see things that are not there sometimes. They can also have a tunnel vision problem.
Flat or blunted affect
A person with a flat affect is severely unable to react to situations emotionally, in an appropriate way. They may find it difficult to emote what they are feeling. For example, when there is happy news just delivered to them they may not smile because they are unable to do so, they may have an expressionless face. Other symptoms a person with flat affect may experience are an appearance of apathy, having a monotone voice while speaking and inability to maintain eye contact while conversing.
A person with blunted affect also feels the way as a person with flat affect but there is some capability of showing facial expressions at least. Flat affect is a more severe condition.
Unwillingness or inability to communicate what they are feeling or thinking
Unwillingness or inability to communicate their thoughts, feelings, and emotions is a big challenge that people with PTSD and many other mental illnesses often face.
It is important for caregivers and friends to know that this behavior is not intentional. It is genuinely difficult for them to speak up about what they are experiencing amidst the flood of thoughts rushing through their head.
Caregivers can try encouraging them to emote in ways where they do not have to speak. For example, ask them if they would like to paint their struggles out, or write down their distress. The idea is to get them to express, even if they prefer to keep it private it is okay. Expressing in some way by itself will help with coping.
Avoidance behaviors can be an attempt, like the word suggests, to avoid distressing thoughts, memories, or external reminders like the places, the people, symbols, smelled or scents, or the things involved in the traumatic event. For example, a survivor of an earthquake might find it very difficult to be in moving vehicles at great speed, they may not want to eat the particular food they ate that day, etc.
Avoiding social gatherings and events is another very common symptom because the person with PTSD might feel the trigger for their physical symptoms of distress like excessive sweating, breathlessness, etc may happen in the social event which might make others uncomfortable and they themselves will end up feeling helpless and embarrassed.
Nightmares or flashbacks
A large majority of people with PTSD will have nightmares and flashbacks as common symptoms. For every person, the frequency and the intensity of the nightmare or flashback of the traumatic event can be different. When PTSD co-occurs with an anxiety disorder or panic disorder, the intensity of the flashback or nightmare may be much higher. Studies on PTSD have found a close link between nightmares and suicidal ideations. Therefore, it becomes important to offer support to the person.
Having nightmares surely disrupts sleep quality and sleep hygiene. People with PTSD may be unwilling to fall asleep fearing a nightmare. Or they may develop sleep disorders like insomnia or sleep apnea because of their poor sleep schedule. This surely affects their work and family life too.
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Ways to combat thousand-yard stare and help your PTSD
Educate yourself about your condition for more clarity of what is happening and why. The confusion that a person experiences about why things are happening to them can add to the distress already existing. Talk to a trusted friend, family member, mentor, or health care provider about your symptoms and feelings so that they can either help you themselves or guide you to a source that could help you better.
Try not to compare your pain with someone else’s pain
Sometimes people may experience PTSD after the tragic death of their beloved pet and might not get validation for their pain like they would have gotten if some known human or family member would have died. Sometimes people feel the natural death of a parent is not something worthy enough to cause PTSD in comparison to the PTSD of a war veteran. It is absolutely wrong and hurtful to compare the intensity of pains two people might face in their individual life circumstances. Kindness and compassion go a long way.
Consult a psychiatrist
A psychiatrist can prescribe medication, for example, antidepressants based on the severity of the condition of the person. Antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications or sleep-inducing medications are an important part of recovery and going to a professional should not be delayed. Some drugs that are prescribed are Citalopram (Celexa), Fluoxetine (Prozac), Paroxetine (Paxil), Sertraline (Zoloft).
Be sure you talk to the psychiatrist about all your symptoms, including thousand-yard stares, flat affect, social isolation, poor sleep hygiene, fatigue, etc.
Consulting a counselor/ psychotherapist is essential in mental health issues. This, most often, goes hand in hand with medication based on the severity of PTSD.
A counselor can bring in newer ways of perception, help the person to emote better while engaging in healthy boundary-making. Discussions with a counselor can also include how to rewire your thoughts about the traumatic event which could be the factor triggering your PTSD.
The counselor can guide you with sensitization towards phobias and the intensity of flashbacks you might be experiencing. You might be introduced to relaxation techniques and meditation to calm your nerves.
The counselor can also help the person reframe their irrational thoughts and beliefs into healthier ways of thinking and being. The counselor and the client, together, also work on and construct healthier coping mechanisms against stressors for the client.
Improve lifestyle choices and work towards good health
Health is a concept with many interlinkages and it is also all-encompassing. One can’t expect to have good mental health if their physical health is deteriorating and vice-versa. Exercising, healthy eating habits, good sound sleep, and practicing mindfulness, along with any medication/therapy if need be, can help attain victory over any condition, including PTSD.
In this blog, we talked about the thousand-yard stare. We began by knowing about what it means, when does it happen and some ways we can use it to understand the underlying mental health illness that the person experiencing thousand-yard stare battles.
What we recommend for personality disorders
If you are suffering from a personality disorder then ongoing professional counselling could be your ideal first point of call. Counselling will utilize theories such as Cognitive behavioural therapy which will help you live a more fulfilling life.
Frequently Asked Questions: thousand-yard stare
What are intrusion symptoms?
Intrusive symptoms are those disturbing flashbacks or thoughts of the traumatic event that drop in out of nowhere while you are peacefully going about doing your things peacefully. Having these intrusive thoughts can make the person irritable and withdrawn.
Is PTSD curable?
Yes. PTSD can be managed and cured successfully. It is normal to be shocked after a traumatic event but if distressing symptoms are intensely prevalent even after a month of the traumatic event, it is important to seek help. Sometimes the symptoms reduce in intensity and frequency within few months but seeking professional help surely can help the person manage the symptoms better before their condition worsens.
What happens if PTSD is left untreated?
If PTSD is ignored, the symptoms manifest into other illnesses like depression and anxiety disorders. Emotional problems can lead to physical problems too like chronic body pain, gut health issues, etc. People may fall back on substances to cope with their PTSD symptoms which can lead them to abuse substances and being dependent on them.
Can PTSD ruin relationships?
They need not ruin relationships, but PTSD surely adds strain to the relationships the patient has with friends and family. It might be difficult for someone to understand why the person with PTSD is struggling with coping, reacting much harshly than usual, or in comparison to others who face the same trauma.
But, people with PTSD can be helped and so can their caregivers if they are having a tough time gauging their loved one’s experience.
It is important to not clarify your doubts with the person who is suffering. Try to educate yourself through other sources of information. Ask the person only about their experience or emotions, if they would like to talk about it. Other times, just be there with them and let them know you are willing to offer any kind of support they would require.