Shell Shock

Shell shock was a term used to refer to the symptoms experienced by World War I veterans. The symptoms these veterans had would likely now be diagnosed as posttraumatic stress (PTSD). Shell shock is also sometimes colloquially used to denote the shock and emotional paralysis a person feels after a traumatic event.

What is Shell Shock?
World War I combat veterans often reported symptoms ranging from headache and anxiety to flashbacks and sensitivities to loud noise. Many doctors believed symptoms were the result of physical injuries sustained during combat, but medical consensus ultimately changed to acknowledge the symptoms as primarily psychological. There was no consensus about how to treat veterans with shell shock.

A few people diagnosed with shell shock were tried for crimes related to cowardly behavior, and several were executed. The military was hesitant to acknowledge the nature of the problem, because soldiers with symptoms of shell shock were removed from combat, thus depleting the availability of soldiers.

Shell Shock and PTSD
Mental health experts now widely agree that veterans who experienced shell shock were exhibiting symptoms of posttraumatic stress (PTSD). PTSD is a reaction to severe stress and can cause anxiety, flashbacks, anger, difficulty performing daily tasks, depression, and physical symptoms. Military veterans of today still often experience PTSD, but treatment is much more effective. Other people who have experienced trauma–such as victims of rape, people who have experienced a natural disaster, and people living in war-torn areas–may also develop PTSD.

Treatment for PTSD usually involves a combination of therapy, medication, and practicing relaxation techniques. Many people with PTSD participate in group therapy that allows them to talk about their experiences and share coping strategies; the military commonly uses group sessions to help soldiers with PTSD.


  1. Shell shock. (n.d.). First World War. Retrieved from
  2. Shell shock. (n.d.). Spartacus Educational. Retrieved from

Last Updated: 08-25-2015

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