In Iron Man 3 Tony Stark is having trouble. The events of The Avengers - especially his suicide mission through the wormhole - are getting to him. He's having panic attacks, he's not sleeping, he's unraveling at the edges. But is it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Dr. Andrea Letamendi is a clinical psychologist who just happens to have a deep and abiding interest in all things nerdy. I've had her as a guest on my YouTube show (part 1 here and part 2 here!), and despite her unhealthy fixation on the broken down franchise of Star Wars, I find Dr. Drea to be a smart and insightful woman. So when she launched Under The Mask, a website that took a psychological view of superheroes and science fiction stories, I bookmarked it.
Her latest post tackles the question of Tony Stark's exact diagnosis; it's a fascinating read that will help you better understand PTSD and anxiety, as well as one that really highlights why the Marvel movies work so well: they're extraordinary character pieces. Here's a highlight:
A person with PTSD shows symptoms that fall in the following 3 categories: recollections (such as nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts), avoidance (making efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma), and hyper-arousal (difficulty sleeping or being agitated). In the beginning of the film, Tony mentions that he has been awake for 72 hours while working on his Iron Man suits (hyper-arousal). As previously described, he escapes situations where he might be reminded of the trauma (avoidance). Undoubtedly, Tony is haunted in his dreams (recollection), which could arguably be one of the reasons he stays awake for days at a time (more avoidance). In a particularly unsettling scene, Tony is dreaming about the alien attack. While still asleep, he conjures his Mk 42 Iron Man suit to protect himself, but the suit assaults Pepper, who screams in horror. This isn’t an unlikely scenario. One of my patients used to sleep with a bayonet next to his bed, a protective habit he picked up while in the military. He confessed to me that he had woken up several times hunched over his wife with the bayonet pressed against her face. Incidentally, he didn’t meet full criteria for PTSD.
“I’m a mess.” – Tony Stark, Iron Man 3
One of the most important characteristics of PTSD is significant “functional impairment.” That is, does the disturbance cause marked distress or impairment in either social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning? Clearly, the insomnia, panic attacks, and intrusive thoughts of the trauma are affecting Tony’s social relationships, namely: Pepper and Rhodey. But does the anxiety impact his ability to function as Iron Man?