Jimmy Stewart’s PTSD

Jimmy Stewart in uniform

A friend recently posted a blog from TheVeteransSite.com entitled “Jimmy Stewart Faced His PTSD While Acting in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’” In it blogger Dan Doyle shared what he had learned from another article on the web, “Jimmy Stewart’s Wonderful Life” written by Ned Forney.

Both authors described in detail how actor Jimmy Stewart, known for his role as George Bailey in the movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” was actually in the throes PTSD as a result of the impact of having experienced horrific emotional battle wounds during his time of active duty during World War II. The authors shared that on one of his missions his unit lost 13 planes and 130 men died. These were men Stewart knew personally. I cannot imagine how overwhelming these losses must have been for him and how he probably experienced some degree of survivor guilt – ‘Why them and not me?’

When he returned from the war the authors describe the classic symptoms of PTSD that Stewart exhibited: “He had lost weight and looked sickly, was depressed, rarely slept and when he did he suffered terrible nightmares of planes getting hit and men screaming and falling from the sky. He lacked focus and would not talk about his experiences in the war with anyone.” 

The comment about him not talking to anyone about it reminded me of how trauma is stored in the body as a mass of unexpressed feelings, sensations and toxic energy. If left untreated and unreleased, it can fester in a person’s body and seep out in self-destructive ways that can torture the victim and harm their relationships and their lives in profoundly sad ways. Finding a healthy outlet for this built up traumatic energy can be very challenging.

Image from It's a Wonderful Life.
Courtesy: Fox News

What the authors reveal is that Stewart found an outlet in the character of George Bailey and the many highly emotional scenes of deep pain, sorrow, fear and loss that occur throughout the movie.  They said that those on the set could see that Stewart wasn’t just acting but was expressing the built-up emotions that were at the heart of his PTSD.   think about the scene in the bank when George Bailey loses his temper with Uncle Billy who misplaced $8000. Or when he proposed to Mary and seemed to almost be ready to physically assault her, shaking her as he demanded she understand how he wanted his life to turn out. There was his anger at his longtime buddies Bert and Ernie who no longer recognized him when he returned to his hometown a stranger. There are so many scenes of frustration, anger, desperation and despair that probably resonated with his traumatic memories of terror and tragedy, of loss and the insanity of his war experiences.

This is a lesson in what is needed to help a person heal from terrible traumas: opportunities to release traumatic energy in a safe environment with others who care and are willing to tolerate the expression of that energy for a long as is needed. What is interesting in Stewart’s case is that the process of addressing the PTSD occurred through being able to throw himself into a character who was filled with excruciating pain, desperation and conflict. He was able to express and discharge some of that pent up energy each time he did an emotionally taxing scene. He was surrounded by cast members and others who could support and embrace his emotional outbursts that were a part of the expected behaviors of his character.

Christmas movie It's a Wonderful Life

Movies take months to make and scenes often have to be rehearsed and filmed multiple times before directors are satisfied. Stewart probably needed to repeat his deep emotional scenes over and over, and each time his body had the opportunity to release more of the pain that had been built up inside.

Added to all this were the key messages of the movie that may have helped Stewart address and heal from his PTSD:  that every life matters, that we don’t always know when we are impacting others and all the repercussions of our impact over time. He may have felt so overwhelmed by all the losses around him. Perhaps he felt he could have done more to protect the men he was responsible for, leaving him with deep shame in addition to grief.

It all explains how complex trauma typically is and how its impact can be so powerful and unique to each person. It also shows all that is needed to help someone address that impact and find ways to deal with it and heal from it.

Forney ends his article by saying, “He [Stewart] was a man who suffered from and overcame PTSD, inspired millions of people with his kind words and spirit, and became a role model who left a lasting legacy of goodwill, patriotism, and selflessness that all Americans can be proud of.” 

Invitation for Reflections:

  1. Assuming you have seen the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, were you struck by how deeply emotional Jimmy Stewart was as he played George Bailey? How does this information about Stewart’s PTSD clarify why he was so successful in portraying the deep traumas of his character, George Bailey?
  2. How does this information about being able to vicariously discharge traumatic energy through playing a role give you more insights into the nature of trauma and some of the ways to address PTSD?
  3. How might you use this information to help you or others who might be struggling with issues of traumatic energy that causes PTSD?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director Lakeside Global Institute