The Thousand-Yard Stare: The Expression of Trauma

They say the eyes are the mirror to the soul. Indeed, traces of psychological trauma can often be observed in the eyes of a sufferer. In fact, there's a phenomenon, coined during World War II, that describes this kind of eye behavior.
The Thousand-Yard Stare: The Expression of Trauma
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 01 May, 2023

Trauma is expressed in many ways, particularly by the eyes. We only have to think of the face of the green-eyed Afghan girl on the cover of National Geographic in the 1980s. She adopted the thousand-yard stare. This is also seen in soldiers returning from war who’ve witnessed atrocities that they find too difficult to talk about.

This term was coined in 1944 after Life magazine published a painting, Marines Call It That 2,000 Yard Stare by Tom Lea. The painting is a picture of a World War II Marine. His expression perfectly portrays the anatomy of psychological pain. It depicts the internal wounds that are often so difficult to heal.

The thousand-yard stare is the product of dissociation or the need to separate/distance from reality in order not to suffer.

An expression of trauma

The thousand-yard stare is a popular term. It describes a look demonstrated by those who’ve experienced stressful or adverse events. It’s a gestural or expressive manifestation of a deep psychological trauma or distressing event sustained over time. Interestingly, the physician Johannes Hofer mentioned this characteristic as early as the 17th century.

When an individual has been in the midst of combat for a long time, in a situation of sustained tension, they can end up experiencing a state of insensitivity and anhedonia. They stop expressing emotion and they look completely lost. The writer, Joan Didion, spoke of this phenomenon in her book, The Year of Magical Thinking. She recounted her experience following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.

Didion wrote that people dealing with trauma recognize each other by looking into their eyes. It’s rather like when you visit the ophthalmologist and they dilate your pupils. It makes your eyes look totally blank. However, in reality, the thousand-year stare is produced by a series of psychological processes.

“He left the States 31 months ago. He was wounded in his first campaign. He has had tropical diseases. He half-sleeps at night and gouges Japs out of holes all day. Two-thirds of his company has been killed or wounded. He will return to attack this morning. How much can a human being endure?”

-Tom Lea-

soldier suffering from the thousand yard stare
A lost and inexpressive gaze often hides the shadow of psychological trauma.

The manifestation of the thousand-yard stare

The thousand-yard stare can be the result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as acute stress disorder (ASD). ASD is a normal and adaptive response of the body to a stressful situation. However, when the symptoms persist for a prolonged period and affect the quality of life of the individual, it loses its adaptive nature. In fact, it becomes a disorder.

These are conditions that produce an emotional impact that can reverberate for months or even years. In these situations, the sufferer:

  • Is unable to express emotions.
  • Disconnects from their environment.
  • Responds with automatic mechanisms. Moreover, they cling to routines.
  • Suffers from insomnia and panic attacks and demonstrates erratic behavior.
  • Gazes into a fixed point in space.
  • Adopts a facial expression that appears to be frozen somewhere between sadness and fear, dejection and astonishment.

You might also like to read Loss of Self Awareness Due to PTSD

The explanation of the thousand-yard stare

Post-traumatic stress manifests itself in multiple ways. Behind this condition, lie complex psychological mechanisms, such as dissociation. Thus, the thousand-yard gaze is mediated by mental disconnection or dissociation. Many people adopt it when the situation in which they’re trapped has become particularly painful.

A study conducted by Widener University (USA) claims that it’s often ignored how trauma mediates in situations in which the mind fragments to get away from pain. Among other effects, the patient demonstrates perplexity and distance from reality. Furthermore, they experience identity problems and memory failures.

Who adopts the thousand-yard stare?

In 2003, the American Journal of Epidemiology wrote about the most common mental conditions among Gulf War veterans. Most of them suffered from post-traumatic stress and chronic fatigue syndrome. The thousand-yard stare was frequent among these marines or soldiers who’d been on the front lines of battle.

Dramatic and extremely violent events weaken our mental health, especially if we’re exposed to them for a long time. In addition, we tend to disconnect from our own bodily sensations and from the environment. Consequently, it’s common to see this type of empty look on the faces of trauma sufferers. They seem lost in absolute nothingness.

Witnesses and/or victims of war scenarios, natural disasters, or experiences of great drama and dehumanization, such as attacks, also exhibit this characteristic.

soldier dealing with the aftermath of the thousand yard stare
Soldiers suffering from trauma benefit from EMDR therapy.

Can it be treated?

The thousand-yard stare is a clinical feature of psychological trauma or acute stress disorder. If it’s not treated, it can be maintained over time. This leads the sufferer to a poor and problematic quality of life. These cases always require immediate psychological assistance.

Failure to treat sufferers would mean they’d become low-functioning individuals. As such, they’d be unable to carry out tasks such as holding down jobs, socializing, or making decisions. Moreover, trauma sufferers need to integrate the experiences they’ve suffered. They must also address the dysfunctional emotions and thoughts so common to traumatic experiences.

People who’ve experienced adverse events need to escape and separate themselves from their memories. Dissociation forms a kind of emotional numbness. In effect, they stop feeling.

You might be interested to read Looking at the World Through the Lens of Trauma

Treatment for sufferers of PTSD

Those who exhibit the thousand-yard stare will always require adequate psychological evaluation. Therefore, professionals need to know the situations and requirements of each individual patient. As a rule, therapy is based on psychoactive drugs and psychological therapy.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is the most supported therapy for psychological trauma in terms of scientific evidence. The psychologist, Francine Shapiro, created it in the 1980s, to treat war veterans.

Psychological trauma is a polyhedral phenomenon with extensive symptoms. Undoubtedly, having good professionals trained in the field makes it easier for sufferers to gradually integrate what’s happened in their lives. This lessens their burdens of suffering. Furthermore, it gives them the chance to take back control of their lives.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Breslau, N., Lucia, V. C., & Alvarado, G. F. (2006). Intelligence and other predisposing factors in exposure to trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder: a follow-up study at age 17 years. Archives of general psychiatry63(11), 1238–1245.
  • Breslau N. (2001). The epidemiology of posttraumatic stress disorder: what is the extent of the problem? The Journal of clinical psychiatry62(17), 16–22.
  • Boyer, S. M., Caplan, J. E., & Edwards, L. K. (2022). Trauma-Related Dissociation and the Dissociative Disorders:: Neglected Symptoms with Severe Public Health Consequences. Delaware journal of public health8(2), 78–84.
  • Kang, H. K., Natelson, B. H., Mahan, C. M., Lee, K. Y., & Murphy, F. M. (2003). Post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic fatigue syndrome-like illness among Gulf War veterans: a population-based survey of 30,000 veterans. American journal of epidemiology157(2), 141–148.
  • Schulte-Herbrüggen, O., & Heinz, A. (2012). Psychological trauma in soldiers-a challenge for the German Armed Forces (Bundeswehr). Deutsches Arzteblatt international109(35-36), 557–558.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.