Neuroscience at the Movies

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

This lesson was developed by Ms. Heather Stewart, Neuroscience for Kids Consultant
The pain of the world will sear and break our hearts because we can no longer keep them closed. We've seen too much now. To some degree or other, we have surrendered into service and are willing to pay the price of compassion.

But with it comes the joy of a single, caring act. With it comes the honor of participating in a generous process in which one rises each day and does what one can. With it comes the simple, singular grace of being an instrument of Love, in whatever form, to whatever end.
--Ram Dass

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a response to a situation in which an individual experiences personal trauma (serious or even life-threatening injury) or witnesses such an event occurring to someone else. PTSD is diagnosed when the symptoms of emotional chaos last for more than a month. In soldiers, PTSD has been called "shell-shock" or "battle fatigue," but combat is not the only situation in which people experience traumatic situations, hence the broader term. In PTSD, the individual feels intensely fearful, hopeless and powerless to change the course of traumatic events. Events that might trigger PTSD include natural disasters (e.g., earthquake, hurricane, flood), man-made disasters (e.g., war, bombing, vehicle crashes), or deplorable acts by an individual (e.g., torture, hijacking, bullying). PTSD may happen after a single disastrous event or in response to an intolerable, ongoing situation (e.g. war, torture, child abuse). Some individuals experience few or no symptoms, some may begin experiencing symptoms several years later. Most people, however, develop symptoms within three months of the traumatic experience.

Symptoms vary widely among individuals, as people handle difficult situations differently. Frequently, the individual re-experiences the traumatic event through nightmares, flashbacks and hallucinations. Symptoms may also include hypervigilance (always alert), insomnia or other sleep problems, restlessness, irritability and aggressiveness. It is as if the individual is constantly on the alert to prevent the trauma from recurring, or even to change the previous occurrence if it were possible. At other times or in other cases, a pattern of "learned helplessness" may be evident: the individual is powerless to change the traumatic experience and responds by withdrawing emotionally. The person is unable to enjoy activities he used to like and may become indecisive (whether because of not caring or feeling powerless to effect an outcome of his decisions). Depression, sometimes with suicidal tendencies, is a frequent companion. Secondary symptoms, such as alcohol or drug abuse, whether as self-medication or as a form of self-abuse are also common. Deep guilt and even shame for not having been somehow able to prevent the experience or deal with the consequences may occur.

There is hope, though. PTSD can be effectively treated and individuals can live a normal life. A strong support structure of family, friends, and community who can help the individual come to terms with the event(s) in a psychologically safe environment and also to realize that he or she is not to blame for the traumatic event is important for successful recovery.

These films are all emotionally charged, as should be expected since the disorder results from a shock to the emotional and psychological centers of an individual. The person's feelings of hopelessness and uncertainty may be represented in the movie by darkness, shadows or haziness. Individuals may feel confined by circumstances, as represented by tunnels (horse in The Horse Whisperer, Max's drawings in Fearless) or even constricted breathing (Carla, Max in Fearless). After such darkness, it is natural to look for the light, whether at the end of the tunnel (drawings in Fearless) or with the coming of the dawn (Megs' talk of the sunrises in 'Nam, also pre-dawn fishing trip in Jacknife). At other times, the way out of the tunnel lies in surrounding one's self in natural or wide open spaces (Montana countryside in The Horse Whisperer, trout fishing spot in Jacknife). See what other examples of darkness and light, or what other metaphors for emotional pain and relief you can find in these films.

Questions to consider while viewing:

  • What traumatic event triggered the character's PTSD? Did the character experience the event personally or was he a witness to an event happening to someone else? Was the situation acute (single disastrous event) or chronic (ongoing traumatic experience)? Was the individual directly responsible for the event?
  • In what ways did the character re-experience the traumatic event -- e.g., nightmares, flashbacks? What other symptoms did the character exhibit? Were there secondary symptoms such as drug or alcohol abuse? If more than one character in the film experienced the same event, did they respond in the same way?
  • Did the character(s) have a support system -- family, friends, community -- to help him or her deal with the experience? If so, who or what was it? In what ways did these help?
  • Did the character recover or have hope of future recovery by the end of the film?
  • If you or someone you knew had a traumatic experience, what support structure and resources would you draw upon? How would you re-establish a regular routine? How would you re-establish control of your life?
  • If you watched two or more of these films, compare and contrast the PTSD characters' traumatic experiences, how they each responded to it and how they approached recovery.

The Horse Whisperer


Middle School

Rated: PG-13


170 min.

When 12 year-old Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johannson) and her horse are involved in a horrific accident that severely traumatizes both girl and steed, her determined mother, Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas), casts her net far and wide to find someone who can heal them. In the quest for help, they cross more than 2000 miles of country to arrive at the Montana ranch of the straightforward and enigmatic "horse whisperer," Tom Booker (Robert Redford). There are plenty of wide open spaces, time and sincere and loving support to help draw horse and girl back into the world of the living. This is a lyrical film, full of visual poetry. Not to be missed.


High School

Rated: R


122 min.

Life changes for plane-crash survivors Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) and Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez), as they struggle to understand and integrate the event. Max has dissociated from his true feelings and now thinks he's invulnerable since he's experienced death and come back. ("We're safe because we died already.") In contrast, Rosie is filled with guilt that she couldn't hold on to her baby who died in the crash. Rosie and Max bond and help each other find reason and purpose in rejoining the world of the living. An excellent snapshot into the lives of trauma survivors, individual responses to tragedy, and how such events shake not only the survivors but reverberate through their inner circles of family and friends. Excellent supporting roles by Isabella Rossellini as Max's wife, Laura; Tom Hulce as the pragmatic attorney, Brillstein; and John Turturro as Dr. Perlman, the airline's PTSD expert. With the absence of blatant sex or violent scenes, I'm not sure what the "R" rating is for, though the movie is heavy on emotional content. I'd give it a PG-13.


High School

Rated: R


102 min.

Dave Flanagan (Ed Harris) has been stuck in a downward spiral of alcoholism and denial since the Vietnam War. The loss of a close buddy there threatens to entrap him and those closest to him, including his sister Martha (Kathy Baker). When another war buddy, Joseph "Megs" Megasy (Robert de Niro) arrives before dawn one morning at their small-town Connecticut home on opening day for trout season, things start to change. Even with his own closet full of ghosts and demons, Megs (aka Jacknife) reawakens them both to living and reminds us all that joy and sorrow, living and remembering need not be mutually exclusive. Flashbacks of war are not overdone -- just enough to allow viewers to understand the roots of the characters' psychological distress. Excellent and sensitive performances by all three main characters.

Related links:

Movie Topics
Amnesia Autism Blindness Cognitive Disability
Deafness Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Brain Tumors Feral Children
Neuroscience at the Movies


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